Restoring lost forests

Ntchisi, Not so long ago, the hills and valleys in Ntchisi district were draped in a green canopy that gave beautiful scenery. Dense forests like Mndirasadzu and Kaombe were the pride of vegetative cover for the district.

However, the continuous billowing of smoke from these forests spelt doom as trees disappeared into charcoal, finding their way into cities like Lilongwe. Bare hills were left, exposing rocks that stood taller than stumps struggling to regenerate.

The situation has not improved as Ntchisi continues to struggle in curbing malpractices that are robbing it of its natural beauty, with charcoal burning as the major challenge.

But as the district council is desperately struggling to reduce charcoal burning, there is one place that has taken an initiative to restore its vegetative cover.

It is Senior Chief Nthondo’s area which lies 10 km away from the boma. As one drives through the winding roads to this place, your eyes are greeted to the continuous sight of green cover through forests.

Each village you pass through has a forest and most hills are well covered with indigenous trees. All this thanks to the local policing of its forests.

“No person dares tampering with trees here, you can see how green the hills are over here,” boasts Senior Chief Nthondo while showing this reporter one of the hills called Chika, which stands a kilometre away from his headquarters

The chief says his subordinates agreed to roll back environmental protection because they have had nasty experiences with the adverse effects of environmental degradation due to wanton cutting down of trees.

The effects include perennial drought and hunger due to erratic rainfall patterns which resulted in poor harvests.

He says that initiatives to restore forests in the area are geared towards rolling back the glory days of bountiful harvests through good rains.

When he became T/A in 1998, the chief vowed to protect natural resources in the area by imposing strict rules.

“The first thing was to take care of the young shoots to regenerate back into forests. So we formulated by-laws to govern the protection of all trees including the planted ones,” says T/A Nthondo whose real name is Yobe Mpanang’ombe.

Stiffer punishments to offenders have been a secret to successful environmental protection in Nthondo.

For instance, if one is found cutting a tree, small or big, is fined MK25, 000 or five goats which goes to Village Natural Resources Management Committees (VRNMCs).

This has helped in adherence of the by-laws, giving chance to undisturbed regeneration and growth of vegetation cover in most homes and hills.

In a recent visit to Nthondo, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, Bright Msaka, was all praises to the restoration of forests in the area. He commended the area for managing its forests well when most areas in the country are failing.

“I think people can come and learn how you are doing it here. This is very good and I am not surprised to hear that the rains have been good in the few past years,” says Msaka.

The initiatives by Nthondo communities have attracted help in terms of capacity building from organizations with similar interest, one of it is Training Support for Partners (TSP).

TSP is a non-governmental organization (NGO) working in Ntchisi and provide support in capacity building to communities and institutions undertaking various development activities in all sectors.

TSP project coordinator Mighty Fremu says they provided trainings in forest management which empowered people of Nthondo in the making of firebreaks to protect forests and the use of forests for livelihood benefits like bee keeping.

“These were the areas they were interested in for sustainable forestry management, says Fremu.

He adds that another major component was the creation of family forests, where each family was encouraged to own a woodlot known as ‘mkhanjo’ in Chichewa.

The training outcomes also encouraged committees to have a woman ambassador from each village who should go around in mobilizing fellow women to lead in forest management.

Eunice Zimba from Mphedza Village is one of the ambassadors and says there has been increased women participation in forest management through this component.

Most women now are owners of individual woodlots, Zimba says adding that the number of women ambassadors in forest management is increasing with each passing year.

The ambassadors have been instrumental in mobilizing community forums where women discuss the importance of forests and how they can manage their individual and family woodlots.

“Women appreciate the importance of managing forests because they are the ones who suffer a lot because of deforestation, says Zimba.

While Ntchisi District Council is calling for support from the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) in protecting endangered forests, Nthondo area seems to have the answer and it all goes down to local leadership.

“It is clear that the forestry department lack capacity to protect our forests. I propose they hand over the powers to chiefs, says Nthondo adding that a sense of ownership among the people is ideal for sustainable forest management.

Assistant District Forestry Officer for Ntchisi, Gabriel Misomali, agrees with the chief saying the use of traditional leaders could be the way to go.

It has been observed that where there is strong traditional leadership, forests are in good shape. Traditionally, chiefs own the people and have influence on how subjects behave towards natural resources, says Misomali.

He adds that it is for this reason that the forestry department is working closely with chiefs to rescue natural resources in the district.

As Senior Chief Nthondo and his subjects revel in the pride of having protected community forests, other areas in the district are still grappling with efforts to curb the fast rate at which forests are disappearing.

Nthondo has this to say: “The solution is within the chiefs in these areas, not from forestry officials or the Malawi Defence Forces.

Source: Malawi News Agency � MANA