As a secondary school student in the 1950s, Cornelius Mwalwanda worked during the holidays at the Viphya plantation in Northern Malawi's Mzimba district, to save for school fees.
Viphya's 53,500-hectare man-made plantation, the largest in Southern Africa, began in the 1950s in an attempt to render Malawi self-sufficient in construction timber.
It would soon become a major supplier of softwood timber to African nations such as South Africa, Kenya and Mozambique, as well as the Middle East. But that may soon be history. These days, Viphya stands at 10% plantation cover, and dwindling.
"I planted a few of the trees that you see there today," said Dr Mwalwanda, now Malawi's Deputy Finance Minister. "It is painful to see the destruction that is taking place there now," he said, closing his eyes in the air-conditioned government-issued Toyota Land Cruiser as it speeded along the 116km M1 road that snakes through the plantation to Capitol Hill in Lilongwe.
Mwalwanda's agony is easy to understand. Driving past the area, thousands upon thousands of hectares of raw or dried tree stumps populate the hillsides.
Malawi's government claims that replanting is taking place. In 2012, the government recorded replanting of 1,600 hectares, translating to 2.1 million trees.
"As government we are playing our part," said Jane Chilunga, Malawi's Minister of Environment and Climate Change. "This year we have targeted 3,000 hectares and we hope that at this rate we will achieve significant progress in a few years to come."
To this end the Forest Development Fund was created, managed by Malawi's Forestry Department with a goal of collecting categories of payments, retaining 80% of revenue collected. But there is little indication on the ground that replanting is taking place.
Reforestation games or gains?
In 1964, Malawi's first President Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda branded projects such as the pulp and paper industry as means of generating foreign exchange. The bulk of Viphya's pine-based 53,501 hectares were planted by the government.
As with much of Africa, privatization came to the fore: the State-run Viphya Plywood and Allied Industries (VIPLY) would be replaced by Raiply, a company that manages 20 000 hectares through an exclusive concessionary arrangement signed in 1998, for a period of 15 years.
An estimated 33,000 hectares was held for licensed Malawian loggers for sustainable harvesting. And Eric Zangazanga, Viphya's manager, said a replantation drive was ongoing in an attempt to halt ecological degradation.
"We want to reverse the situation because a lot more hectares are harvested but only few trees are replanted. If the trend is left like that, this is very likely to affect the timber business in future," he told local media.
Meanwhile, Ben Botolo, from the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment, claimed: "We want to turn our Plantations into major sources of income. As such, we will be harvesting and quickly replenishing the harvested land."
The creation of the FMD was promoted by Botolo and Zangazanga as proof that depleted plantations across the country need to be revived. As much as 60 million trees are expected to be planted in 2013 alone. And according to Botolo, only early maturing trees, available for harvest within 15 years, would be planted.
But during several trips to the site in question, such as Luwawa, Chikangawa, Champhoyo and Lusangazi, there was little evidence of activity.
Aggressive logging activity, however, was obvious: Logging camps dotted the landscape at regular, hastily erected small trapezium wooden shacks adjacent to newly razed forest areas. Plumes of smoke emanated from the hills.
Trucks loaded with timber, en-route to Capitol Hill in Lilongwe or the Northern city of Mzuzu sped by every few minutes. Some would travel across the borders to countries such as Kenya, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania.
The ecological impact of invasive foreign plants on indigenous ground is well known. The same occurs with non-Malawians invasively seeking to access the 33,000 hectares held for local licensed Malawians.
Unlike other sectors, such as mining, fisheries, tourism, financial services and manufacturing, timber harvesting is not a sector where the government provides foreign investors with a business license.
Chilunga claimed that government would enact a law barring foreign entities from Viphya. A number of loggers accessing the portion of Viphya held for local loggers were foreign, operating under Malawian managers, and even falsely operating under Malawian names, inquiries revealed.
Indeed, Malawian statutes do not bar foreign entities and investors from doing business in Malawi.
In an effort to keep track of loggers, the Department of Forestry, in conjunction with the Department of Immigration, has sought to identify and maintain a record of active loggers. But given that identification is usually obtained by listing details of a logger's village - including name of chiefs, districts, collect dialect or accents from the areas - a process susceptible to corruption and bribery, using fake identities is not a difficult scam to pull off.
Locals complain that a privileged few are colluding with foreign citizens to exploit concessions such as the Chikangawa Forest. Police and court reports examined by FAIR (Forum for African Investigative Reporters) revealed there were just 44 known illegal immigrants, identified as from Somalia and Tanzania, acting as operators.
In March this year, police and forestry officials seized foreign citizens illegally operating in Mzuzu. The illegal operators were sentenced for illegal stay and entry and fined 25, 000 Malawian Kwacha (about $65) or, alternatively, serve a three month custodial sentence.
In addition, deportation was ordered.
However, illegal operators merely paid the fines and returned to Viphya without updating their immigration status, claimed sources in the Immigration Department. [Many of these trials were personally covered by this journalist.]
The operators' brazenly reclaimed timber illegally logged, loaded in four trucks, as well as equipment, previously confiscated during the raid.
Again, records seen by FAIR from the Immigration Department in Mzuzu, covering six districts in the Northern Malawian region, including Mzimba, Chitipa, and Karonga, indicate that from February 2012 to March 2013, the Department arrested and deported 384 illegal immigrants.
However, investigations revealed that many of those arraigned were either women, rounded up in drinking joints, or Somalis intercepted using uncharted routes in transit to South Africa. There were no illegal operators from the plantations.
Isaac Maluwa, the Northern Region's Police Operations Officer, disclosed that police received reports of illegal immigrants in the plantation.
"Many foreigners are taking part in the harvesting of trees in the plantation. How they get permits, we do not know. They have taken advantage of our lack of patriotism," he said.
Meanwhile, Gertrude Kachinga, Mzuzu's Deputy Commissioner of Police called upon villagers to desist from the tendency of harboring and aiding illegal immigrants.
Doing the math
Timber from Malawi is far cheaper than from other exporting nations in East Africa. In the East African Market, acquiring 25 pieces of timber, each measuring 18 feet long would cost in the range of MK85, 500. In Malawi, however, the same quality and weight is priced at MK35, 000.
Foreign parties seeking to access Viphya would do so through individual loggers who are members of the 300-strong Timber Millers Cooperatives Union (TMCU).
The TMCU comprises seven authorised cooperatives: Chamatete, Lusangazi, Chibwaka, Zikomo, Viphya, Luwawa and Kalungulu. Each cooperative requires a minimum of 10 members, with no maximum membership.
Cooperatives proceed to subdivide the block to members. Cooperatives would then be required to remit revenue to government in exchange for the given block.
Each hectare costs about MK5 million; a minimum sized block averages 20 hectares, while large blocks measure over 100 hectares. The Forestry Department is required to sell blocks on a cash basis.
Harvesting permits are granted to registered cooperative members if they provide the Forestry Office with a certificate from the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Thereafter, a notation in the Forestry Department's records is sufficient for loggers to begin harvesting.
There is no paper work save for word of mouth and a notation in the Forestry Department records - sufficient for a logger to start harvesting.
A license would begin at MK500, 000, increasing depending on the size of the concession and the number of mature trees, among other factors. The five year license includes taxes and payments for seedlings that should be planted to replace trees harvested in the concession.
The number of licenses far outstrips the capacity of the Forestry department to reforest the area. It takes three months to raise a seedling for replanting and a tree matures in 10-12 years.
FAIR's source alleged that many members who lacked the financial capacity to harvest their allocated blocks would sell the blocks to foreigners at cheaper prices. These foreign entities would utilise their own labour, log the concessions, export the timber, and leave the area without replanting, before moving on. Cooperatives would be left with outstanding debt.
The timber business can be costly. An export licence costs MK250,000 in annual fees while transporting 1,200 pieces to Kenya costs about MK800,000 to MK1 million. Malawians with export licenses were used to ferry the timber across borders.
According to our source, "If a foreign national wants to export for instance 30 metric tonnes of timber, he or she negotiates with a local holder of an export license to act as if the goods are his or hers.
"The local is paid MK450,000 for use of his licence of which he pays MK150,000 for a permit. He or she pockets MK300,000. The local is also given MK660,000 to pay as customs duty to the Malawi Revenue Authority. Once this is done the timber is gone."
This scheme was confirmed by several sources. Bribes were used to pay off border officials among others tactics.
The Department of Forestry was also implicated.
"Sometimes a directive comes from the Ministry headquarters ordering plantation officials to allow some foreigners or their proxies (locals) to access certain blocks for harvesting. The officials oblige, fearing for their jobs," alleged our source, a logger belonging to one of the cooperatives.
The same, we were informed, occurred when foreign entities loaned locals or cooperatives capital at high interest rates, sometimes for agreed-upon timber returns. Foreign investors also colluded with cooperatives, who indicate they possess the relevant capital to harvest blocks, as a means of obtaining more licenses and permits.
Between a stump and a hard place
Revenue is collected from sales of trees and fuel wood, as well as rentals and permits issued to plantation operators - the loggers.
A report made two years ago by Malawi's auditor general revealed that the government had lost at least MK344 million (about $2.1 million at the time) in uncollected revenue from operators and the cost of fire damage.
However, Zangazanga contradicted the report at a public event held in Mzuzu, arguing that Viphya's operators have contributed significant revenue to the government via the Reserve Bank of Malawi. "It has been difficult for government to plough back resources for [Viphya's] rehabilitation. Over the years, they have been very little replanting but so much cutting," he said.
The Auditor General's report disclosed that most operators do not meet basic environmental requirements. An estimated 75% of operators failed to create environmental plans, and none had reforestation plans, save for Raiply.
For Viphya's rapidly diminishing tree cover, dotting the plantation like tragic amputees on a battlefield, help cannot come soon enough.
Collins Mtika is a member of FAIR - Forum for African Investigative Reporters, a pan-African organisation of investigative journalists, and has participated in the Thomson Reuters Foundation/Norad training programme in economic and financial reporting. This article was originally published by The Africa Report.