Victor Chenda Mpanga, 39, knows his livelihood depends on the forest, but like many others eking out a living in Zambia's vast woodland, he had little choice but to help destroy it.
Mpanga was a full-time farmer, but poor yields due to unsustainable agricultural practices and climate change forced him into cutting down trees to produce charcoal - locally known as "malasha" - for fuel and income.
"I have seen my village turning into a grassland instead of forest. The trees are fast vanishing from the forest. The rainfall pattern has changed," Mpanga complains.
Poor rainfall in this area makes farming chancy. For the father of three, turning trees into charcoal was an option of last resort to make ends meet.
Turning the tide
A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - supported project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is offering residents of forest villages like Mpanga a reason to stop felling trees - a practice experts say is threatening forests, wildlife and the environment local people need to survive.
With support from the Forest Regeneration Project, Mpanga and other community leaders have drawn up their own plan to conserve the forest, preserve their tradition and livelihoods, and be a model for sustainable forest management elsewhere in the country.
"Everyone in our community now has the same feeling of having to protect the forest because it comes from our ancestors," Mpanga said.
Mpanga now heads one of 30 Village Action Groups (VAGs) that are working with the project.
The project is encouraging communities to diversify from traditional forest-based incomes such as charcoal burning and timber harvesting.
"Our aim is to draw tourists to areas where communities are working to prevent forests from being lost," Forest Regeneration project manager Biston Mbewe says.
Demand for charcoal
Located in central Zambia, Mpanga's Myenje Village in Chitambo District is struggling with the effects of deforestation fuelled by the insatiable appetite for cooking with charcoal.
Myenje is not alone.
As in many other villages across the country, residents are coping with a mix of climatic and environmental changes that threaten their traditional way of life.
"Central Province is one of those places supplying the capital city with tonnes of charcoal every day, said Charity Phiri, a local forestry technician.
"As a result, there is now a savanna instead of forest; the mushrooms and caterpillars that are like a pay-check for the community are in short supply, farm yields are poor, and rain is lacking."
Zambia has lost vast tracts of forests in recent years, threatening the livelihoods of forest communities as well as endangered species such as buffalos and leopards. Zambia's Forestry Department estimates that 276,000 hectares of forest are cleared each year (that is over 1000 square miles).
The UNDP-supported, GEF-funded Forest Regeneration Project aims to tackle these problems by working with rural communities to create awareness on the importance of protecting the forests while at the same time promoting alternative livelihood activities.
The goal of the project is to regenerate the traditional forest through a mix of subsistence and commercial farming, and sustainable forestry.
With implementation led by the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources - the project is piloted in forest communities experiencing accelerated deforestation rates with little effort put into regeneration.
The community-led forest regeneration initiative is tackling the twin challenges of charcoal production and food security.
"The government sees adding forests as a key way to both curb climate change and help the country adapt to and deal with strong climate change impacts, including droughts," Director of Forestry Ignatius Makumba says.
"Forests are worth protecting and expanding because they not only provide jobs and livelihoods, they also provide climate, food and water security," UNDP Resident Representativein Zambia Mandisa Mashologu says.
Local environmentalists say despite concerted efforts to reduce deforestation, last year's poor rainfall - influenced by El Niño - raises fears that more Zambian villagers could turn to the forests for fuel and income.
To combat the upsurge of deforestation, the project has trained community and traditional leaders who are now rallying people around the idea that they can build for the future by planting and protecting trees, rather than cutting them down and turning them into charcoal.
Through the VAG user groups, the initiative seeks to prevent deforestation by giving people a financial stake in keeping the forest intact.
The beneficiaries are now earning extra cash from new livelihood activities such as bee-keeping, fish farming, conservation farming, wild mushroom drying, gardening, briquette production and livestock to protect animals from hunting. "Income generation is the only way my people will refrain from charcoal burning," Chief Kabamba of Serenje District says.
The traditional leader reveals that his chiefdom has committed to planting 50 tree seedlings per community member on deforested land each year.
Briquettes - an alternative to wood charcoal
The project is now experimenting with the use of biomass as an alternative to wood charcoal using agricultural wastes - such as dry leaves, maize husks and grass - converted into charcoal briquettes to provide much needed source of cheap fuel that is cleaner in burning.
Reformed charcoal producers may now have found a way to hold on to their charcoal-making income while also protecting trees, building a more sustainable future for themselves.
They have turned to producing briquettes from dry leaves, reducing the felling of trees while also making a product they hope could interest supermarkets and help lift hundreds of families out of poverty.
"Compared with wood charcoal, the briquettes produced from agricultural wastes are economical, environmentally friendly, (no smoke at all) and can reduce the impact of deforestation," said Mbewe, the project manager.
Trees for improving soil fertility
So far, the project has distributed 8,000 of the projected 10,000 multi purpose trees. The seedlings include the fast-growing Gliricydia which produces abundant quality fodder and firewood and is highly noted for fixing nitrogen in the soil and improving soil fertility.
Farmers were motivated to plant different types of trees serving various purposes. For instance, Pongamia for generating additional plant biomass and timber purposes.
The project is also working through two local agriculture NGOs, the Kasanka Trust and the Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), to train farmers in conservation farming.
Farmers who adopted conservation farming techniques have seen their harvests rise considerably, thereby reducing the felling of trees for charcoal production.
Catherine Kunda, the Chitambo District Commissioner is happy with the positive impact of the project. "The project is providing key information, capacity building, and technical assistance so that communities can conserve their forests and improve their livelihoods. These communities play a key role in fighting climate change and saving their remaining forests from destruction," she said.
The author is a communications specialist within the Enironment Unit at UNDP Zambia.