Lilongwe — Chopping down the forests for charcoal and fuel wood seems so shortsighted, but until there are alternative sources of energy for Malawi's rural poor, the destruction will continue.
Malawi loses about 50,000ha of indigenous forest every year - the highest deforestation rate in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. The government estimates that just 4 percent of the population has access to electricity; over 93 percent depend on wood fuel.
Satellite images have shown that "deforestation is one of our biggest problems", commented Samuel Kamoto of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi. The country has an agro-based economy; the ecological crisis "reduces productivity" but also affects the fisheries industry, as water runoff washes more silt into Lake Malawi.
Charcoal production is supposed to be regulated, but the practice is so widespread that the law is virtually unenforceable. "I have been burning charcoal since I was young and there is no way I can stop it now, just because I am told it is illegal. Unless an alternative business is found, I will continue producing charcoal," said a defiant 17-year-old primary school dropout, Richard Likoswe.
The maximum fine for being caught without a licence is 5,000 kwacha [US$40], but police at roadblocks usually just confiscate the charcoal. "Where do you get a licence? How many people have licences?" asked Likoswe - questions even government officials find difficult to answer.
For the past decade the government and NGOs have been trying to implement income-generating activities across the country to lessen dependence on charcoal and fuel wood.
Yasin Matiyasi, a beneficiary of a rural loan scheme, tried keeping guinea fowl but the business failed. "I tried bee-keeping - it also failed because I did not have the knowledge of how to keep bees. I am now back to charcoal business," he said with a smile.
According to one forestry department official who refused to be named, "the big problem is that people are so used to producing charcoal. Even if you give them loans, they use the same money to burn more charcoal. This problem will not end."
Matiyasi sells a 50kg bag of charcoal for K800 (US$7). "In one month I make about K12,000 [US$90]. The problem I have is that as soon as I sell a bag of charcoal, I immediately buy either food or pay [school] fees for my children."
By Malawi standards Matiyasi is making good money. The salary of the lowest-paid primary school teacher is around K6,000 (US$45) and that of a nurse about K10,000 (US$75).
Mwanza District Forestry Officer Lano Kanyang'wa nevertheless believes the underlying issue is that the majority of people "are living in poverty, and until this problem is addressed we will face the problem of deforestation".
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]