To be poor and be without trees, is to be the most starved human being in the world. To be poor and have trees, is to be completely rich in ways that money can never buy.” 
― Clarissa Pinkola EstésThe Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die

Where did all the trees go? (Source: African Geographic)

According to Kate Moore, Programme Director of the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, Malawi has the highest deforestation rate out of all the 11 Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries. Globally, Malawi has the fourth highest deforestation rate in the world (Malawi News Agency, 2015). Between 2000 and 2005 the deforestation rate increased with Malawi losing 12.7% of its forest cover (Mongabay, 2005). The effects of this change are already having long-term impacts on the ground (per comms., 2016, Allan Kwanjana, Director of the Parks, Recreation and Environment Directorate, Lilongwe City Council).

With 70% of Malawians reliant on the land for their livelihoods (per comms., 2016, Allan Kwanjana), it is easy to understand that the environment cannot keep up with the demands of its population. The citizens of Malawi are clearing land for subsistence agriculture as well as cutting down trees to be used in their homes for cooking.

Source: NSO (2007:73-74) Welfare Monitoring Survey Report

With no alternatives available to citizens to stop them relying so heavily on their natural asset base how can it really be expected that people stop using trees for food and money. The socio-economic status of Malawi perpetuates this problem as more than half of the population lives below the poverty line (2016 Index of Economic Freedom). With financial investments, capacity building, training and provision of viable alternatives one hopes that a difference can be made through continuous effort as well as support from all levels of government.

According to Gift Kasamira (Director of the City Development Unit, Lilongwe City Council), Clement Manjaalera (Head of Community Conservation, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust) and Martin Katembo (Ntchisi community member), the actual driver of deforestation in Malawi is urbanisation. However, surely with increased urbanisation, more people won’t have to rely so heavily on the environment, as they get jobs in secondary and tertiary sectors?

Rows and rows of men transporting charcoal on bicycles (Photo by ICLEI Africa)

Interestingly what is suggested is that despite people coming into Malawian cities and towns they still prefer the use of charcoal for their cooking purposes.  Electricity is not readily available to everyone and so residents still rely heavily on their forests for energy. “In urban areas, the electric connection rate in 2007 was 52% with the number of electricity connected household being estimated at 45,105 households. The table below shows the energy sources for lighting and cooking in Lilongwe City. About 46% of households utilised electricity for lighting in 2007, which showed a sharp increase from 38.5% in 2005. While only 18.5% of households utilise electricity for cooking. Firewood and charcoal are still the dominant sources of energy for cooking” (per comms., 2016, Allan Kwanjana).


Climate change impacts the intensity and frequency of rainfall events, as well as the quantity of rainfall, with lower levels of rainfall being experienced in many parts of Malawi (Trocaire, Date unknown). As 100% of the country is reliant on hydropower for generation of electricity, this lowered rainfall level will significantly affect water provision and energy security in the future. Leading to potential power outages.

Man transporting charcoal on his bicycle (Photo by ICLEI Africa)

With the high levels of demand for charcoal being concentrated in Malawian cities and towns the trees stand little chance; demonstrated in the Dzalanyama forest reserve area, where deforestation is occurring on a significant scale. The Malawi Defence Force, through funding from the Japanese International Corporation Agency (JICA), has been brought in to manage the forest reserve and carry out enforcement efforts with the communities adjacent to the reserve (per comms., 2016, Charles Kachingwe). The Dzalanyama forest reserve is the lifeblood of the City of Lilongwe, as the Lilongwe River starts in the forest reserve. With high levels of deforestation, the Lilongwe River is beginning to silt up, becoming polluted and drying up (per comms., 2016, Elesani Zakochera, Regional Director of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi), which could ultimately resulting in tragedy for the 600 000 inhabitants of the Lilongwe

City, as they are reliant on the Lilongwe River for water. What happens when the defence force is no longer present in the Dzalanyama forest reserve? And what is happening at the other forest reserves that the defence force isn’t looking after?


Scar from throwing trees down the mountain side (Photo by ICLEI Africa)

According to a Blantyre community member, Henry Nkata, it is not the local community members that are cutting down the trees in such high quantity but rather external opportunists who travel far distances to harvest the trees and then burn them for charcoal. Driving along the road from the Chileka International Airport (Blantyre) to the village Likhubula (which are only 10km apart), hundreds of men, are laden with charcoal on their bicycles, and can be seen day in and day out. This situation is expected to be made even worse by the commercial market for charcoal, where charcoal is transported to the cities by the truck load.

On the mountain just to the left of the city of Blantyre, known as Bangwe Hill, there is a clearly visible scar. According to Henry Nkata, this is a scar caused by the harvesting of trees that are then thrown down the mountain face, to be burned into charcoal at a more viable location.

Without trees cities cannot function. Trees are crucial for providing oxygen, combating climate change, protecting water reserves, stabilising the soil and providing habitats for important biodiversity. So what is the answer to protecting them and trying to reduce the significant deforestation rate currently occurring in Malawi? Could it be increasing the price of charcoal in order to reduce the demand that is driving the problem? Could extensive capacity building, training and roll-out of fuel efficient stoves, solar cookers and heat retention stoves be the answer? Whatever the solution, the commercial trade of charcoal needs to be addressed. This might be the most pressing environmental issue currently being faced by Malawians.

1 Data sourced from Cities and Biodiversity Outlook:

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