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Planting a million trees for Malawi

Malawi landscape [Related Image]

© Christian Aid/Nicky Milne

Sabine Joukes reports on a project to halt deforestation in a once-fertile land. 

Earlier this month I drove out to Kauma, one of the main villages outside Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. People in Kauma live in modest dwellings, mostly brick houses with tin roofs.

As I arrived with colleagues, by car, I saw a new sewer system had been built outside the village. But as we continued through Kauma, something else was very clear: its surroundings were completely bare.

Malawi is a country known for its green, fertile landscapes. And yet in Kauma there was hardly a tree standing: just one old Kachere tree.

Native to Malawi, these fig trees provide plenty of shade when fully grown. In the past, this made them an ideal place for chiefs to hold court and for mission schools to teach their pupils. For this reason, Kachere trees are a symbol of unity and carry a special status in Malawi. People are forbidden from cutting them down, and yet the solitary tree I saw in Kauma had only a few branches remaining. 

This stark scene is being echoed in many parts of Malawi, which has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates. Its once-rich forests are slowly disappearing: researchers put the deforestation rate between 1.6 and 2.8 per cent of forest cover a year, as hills and mountains become barren.

Trees are being felled for fuel wood, to make space for farmland and for use commercially, including within the tobacco industry. However, a leading driver of deforestation is the illegal production and sale of charcoal made from wood, despite the introduction of laws prohibiting unlicensed charcoal sales. In a country where only nine per cent of people have access to electricity, wood is at a premium.

With trees gone, there is nothing to stop the water when rains come. Last year, this contributed to the impact of massive floods – the country’s worst in two decades – which left more than 500,000 people homeless, washing away homes, livestock, crops and roads. (The floods are partly to blame for the country’s current food shortages, alongside the late, poor and erratic rains.)

Meanwhile, deforestation leaves the country open to rising temperatures, with fewer trees to soak up carbon dioxide. This environmentally destructive practice also loosens soil, releasing further CO2 into the atmosphere and creating the potential for soil to cascade down hills during heavy rains.  

Simply put, this is a very real issue for Malawians. It is precisely what took me to the village of Kauma.

I had travelled there with Malawian colleagues from international development charity Christian Aid and our Enhancing Community Resilience Programme (ECRP), a five-year initiative funded with aid from the British government, Irish Aid and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At ECRP, we work to increase food security, tackle extreme hunger and poverty, and strengthen the resilience of Malawi’s communities, particularly those prone to natural disasters and climatic hazards. However, we know that unless we tackle deforestation and slow the vanishing forest-cover, we cannot truly build the resilience of people living in floodplains or on barren hills.

So my colleagues and I got down on our hands and knees in Kauma that day, to plant more than 4,000 trees alongside a team of villagers. After receiving tree seedlings, we each found a pit in which to plant our tree. With our bare hands, we carefully covered its fragile roots to give it the best chance of survival.

These 4,000 trees marked the first step in our new project to plant a million trees in Malawi.

People in Malawi have planted trees before, in massive numbers, and continue to do so. And yet, so few of them endure. The survival rate is simply not good enough. That’s why we haven’t just committed to plant a million trees, but we have also pledged to protect them in years to come.

ECRP isn’t alone in this massive undertaking: we’ve joined forces with partners in Act Alliance, the Youth Network for Climate Change and Peace Corps volunteers from the US.

We will continue to plant the trees together with Malawi’s communities, and we have a joint responsibility to see they survive. If we can nurture them until they’re fully grown, they will one day provide shade and ground cover, reduce water run-off, prevent erosion and retain moisture – for the benefit of Malawi’s women, children and men.

That said, initiatives such as these aren’t just essential for tackling local problems: they can also play a part in addressing global efforts to slow the rate of climate change.

Here’s to a greener future.

Sabine Joukes is Christian Aid Malawi’s chief of party for the Enhancing Community Resilience Programme. Christian Aid leads a consortium for the ECRP.

Look out for the April 2016 issue of New Internationalist: Last stand – saving the world’s forests.

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