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Massive deforestation threatens food security

Uncontrolled forest clearing is causing a major food security concern in the southern African country.
15 February 2005 - Raphael Mweninguwe

Every year the people of Phalombe district in the southern region of Malawi are displaced by floods especially during the rainy season. This year, the situation has not been different. In January, over 500 people had their crops and homes swept away by flush floods. The affected families are those that have settled close to the riverbanks.

Most of the rivers in the district have their banks left bare after villagers have cut down all the trees. Rivers overflow causing damage to the communities. “We are now telling people not to cut down trees along the rivers anyhow. There is lack of forests to hold water from the rivers. This is what is causing these problems. We are now also asking government to assist us with more food aid after the disaster,” Anna Kachikho, a Member of Parliament from the district said.

Kachikho said the communities affected would not have food in the coming harvesting season. She said with the loss of crops the communities would have to rely on food aid. But Phalombe is not the only districts affected by floods. Ntcheu district in the Central Region and Rumphi district in the Northern Region are just a few districts experiencing floods each year. Director of Forestry in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment Kenneth Nyasulu said Malawi was losing forests at a very high rate, a situation he said was causing rivers to flood and damage people’s crops and homes.

“As forests are removed, the soil is left bare. This is washed away, leaving the land unproductive,” he said. Nyasulu said apart from soil loss, the forests prevent water from overflowing the riverbanks. Said he: “It is because of these illegal activities that people are faced with food insecurity. The forests are home to a number of animals and plants. When these are destroyed the ecosystem is affected too. In the past people depended on the forests for survival but now they have nothing to live on.”

The Department of Forestry says that Malawi is leading the other Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) member states in deforestation. At the moment statistics show that the rate of deforestation per year is around 2.8 per cent. Statistics also show that about 50,000 ha of indigenous trees are lost each year because of deforestation.

Majority of the people in Malawi are farmers. For them to harvest enough crop yields they have to move from one garden to the next within two to three or more years. To do so, they have to clear the forests and open new gardens. “This kind of [shifting] cultivation is dangerous,” said Nyasulu, adding, “We need to empower the communities through income generating activities so that they make raise money for their families.” He said to save forests and to ensure that people have food in their homes, the government, with funding from the Japanese government is working on a project that empowers the communities through income generating activities.

Charcoal production is one of the main activities causing deforestation in Malawi. According to the communities, charcoal production earns them some money, which they use to buy food and other needs for their families. “Charcoal is a very serious issue and is one of the major cause of deforestation in Malawi,” observes Nyasulu. Government estimates that charcoal producers make around K800 million (US$7.4 million) a year.

USAID’s Programme Development Specialist (Agriculture) Kenneth Wiyo said the link between deforestation and food security was strong. He, however,
said while the impact of flooding on food security was affecting very few people, and something need to be done to contain the situation. “Those people who have lost their crops due to floods indeed need food aid,” he said.

He said clearing forests for cultivation “is not a long term solution. People can cultivate today, but in three or four years the soil becomes exhausted and will need more land to clear.” The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in its press statement that forests contribute “directly to reducing extreme poverty and hunger and ensuring environmental sustainability.”

“The livelihoods of the approximately 240 million of the world’s poor that live in forested areas of developing countries depend on the [protection and in many cases, the rehabilitation of these forests. Poor people’s agricultural activities also benefit from the role of forests and trees through contributions to land productivity, enhancing crop and livestock production, and providing genetic resources, among other services,”
said FAO in a statement.

The SADC, which in 2002 experienced food crisis, lost a total of 2.2 million hectares of forests between 1990 and 2000, according to Malawi government official statistics. While inaugurating the National Planting Month early this month, president Bingu wa Mutharika warned Malawians against careless cutting down of trees “because doing so will lead this country into a desert.”

He said forests were important because the communities get food out of it. He called on Malawians to plant more trees saying the production of charcoal was causing damage to the environment.

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