As Daniel Chakunkha and Mussa Abu talk on the side of a dirt path in Makunje village, Malawi, a steady stream of bicycles loaded with charcoal passes by. The men stand at the halfway mark between Mwanza, a small city in the country’s southwest, and Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub.
The 50-kilometre-long road joining the two is a figurative energy highway; a constant stream of bicycles heavily laden with oversized bags of charcoal.
“We are forced to walk this distance,” Chakunkha said. “It’s not like we chose to go to (Mwanza) village, but it is the only place where some trees are left.” Informal charcoal makers like Chakunkha and Abu travel to Mwanza because of the easy availability of trees there. They use the trees to produce charcoal and then transport it back to Blantyre for sale.
Chakunkha and Abu have both worked as charcoal producers since the 1970s. They recounted how the industry has steadily consumed trees and pushed production sites further away from densely-populated urban areas.
Resource depletion and environmental degradation are serious problems in Malawi. This sub-Saharan nation is geographically small and relies heavily on natural resources to meet demands for both food and energy.
It is the fifth most-densely populated country in Africa, 80 percent of its 14.9 million people rely on subsistence agriculture, and 85 percent of households surveyed by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in 2007 reported using charcoal for cooking.
Michael Mmangisa, national project manager for the Poverty-Environment Initiative in Malawi, an initiative of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme, described a whirlwind of forces currently working against a sustainable environment.
The two big ones are deforestation and rapid agricultural expansion, he explained.
“Excessive degradation is clearly attributable to poverty, population growth, infrastructural development, inappropriate management, poor policies (especially in the past), and limitations in governmental capacity in policy implementation and legislation enforcement,” Mmangisa said.
It is not something Malawians are unaware of. “We are well aware of the effects of deforestation on the environment but we are forced by circumstances,” Abu lamented.
“Yes, we are feeling the effect of these self-inflicted injuries,” Makunje interrupted. “When we had enough vegetative cover, the soil was very fertile and strong because of the leaves and roots. Nowadays, our farmland has become useless.”
Citing government figures, Mmangisa said that each year Malawi loses 2.6 percent of its forests and between 10 to 57 tonnes of soil per hectare across the entire country.
“There is a need to have well-detailed and enforced legislation in the management of the environment,” Mmangisa said.
Continue reading this article at Inter Press Service.
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