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.