When you get to Traditional Authorities (T/As) Phambala and Makwangwala in Ntcheu, the sight of clay brick ovens, at every 500-metre radius will welcome you.
One rarely sees a house made of undone clay bricks or mud in this area too. Even though all the people we spoke to pointed out to be in this business because of poverty, we spotted no trace of extreme poverty.
Axon Chikanda of James Village, T/A Makwangwala says this is a means of survival, especially this year. He harvested very little maize from his garden due to inconsistent rains in the last farming year.
According to the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services, there had been far less rain during the 2015-2016 farming year than in the previous one.
The department’s Director, Jolamu Nkhokwe, says the “extreme drought” is the result of the El Niño phenomenon.
“This is the unusual warming of waters over the Eastern Central Equatorial Pacific Ocean, which affects the rainfall pattern over the world, including in southern Africa, where Malawi is situated,” he says
He says during an El Niño occurrence, “the physical relationships between wind, ocean currents, oceanic and atmospheric temperature, and biosphere break down into destructive patterns that are second only to the march of the seasons in their impacts to weather conditions around the world”.
New Yo r k ’s Columbia University’s Earth Institute says the phenomenon occurs every two to seven years. The 2015-2016 El Niño has been described as a “super” El Niño and is the worst in 15 years.
This weather pattern left Chikanda with no other choice but to intensify his 20 years old brick-making business.
“This money is not enough. I’m just doing this business to have something to eat. It is damaging the environment yes but I have no alternative,” he says.
Chikanda’s household on the contrary does not look like impoverished nor desperate. He lives in a house roofed with corrugated iron and has chickens, pigeons, goats and cattle.
One mega oven comprising 40,000 bricks costs K80, 000. For such an oven to be well done, it requires seven half-tonne ox-carts loaded with trees.
“I’m aware that brick making depletes trees and leaves out lots of deep pits but what alternative do I have? I would stop if I’m given a clean business to do,” he says.
Edna Nthala of Liphava Village, T/A Phambala in the same district says she has been in the business since 2009 and has managed to pay school fees for her children.
“Just like many other people doing this business in this area would tell you, we are in this because of poverty. Some organisation even told us that we have had unreliable rainfalls in recent years because of environmental damage such as deforestation but, unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about this situation,” she says.
Group Village Head Liphava agrees that brick making is destroying the environment. He says he is in the process of making by-laws which will penalise anyone found cutting down trees unnecessarily.
“People make bricks because they are just used to it but there isn’t much money now. As you can see, there are lots of people in that business in this area. This also means selling at a loss,” he says.
But the Watsons of Gumbi One Village have a different version of brick-making business.
Samuel Watson and his wife Emily initially had a vibrant business of selling groundnuts and maize. When this was no longer a cash cow, they switched to brick making which they claimed is selling lots to people from Balaka who frequent the area weekly.
“This hasn’t been good either as it takes up lots of trees or leads to soil erosion. We thought it wise to use part of our garden for irrigated maize and vegetables,” explains the 44-year-old Watson.
Their piece of land has green maize and vegetables. The couple has even been creative enough to plant bananas on the pits where soil for brick making was dug from.
Unlike most brick-making sites in the area, the Watsons’ yard looks very different. It is surrounded by some trees. They also have some shallow wells which they use for watering the maize and vegetables suing water canes.
“We are already feeling the pinch of environmental degradation. It’s high time we found a solution to the hunger problem by taking part in environmental conservation to reverse the situation,” says the vividly well-informed Emily.
Senior Programme Officer for Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), Dorothy Nhlema, says Malawi needs to move towards cement bricks which are environmentally sustainable and friendly.
“Illegal cutting of trees is actually against the Forestry Act. Clay bricks aren’t better because they use lots of wood and eroding forest areas in the process and also causing soil erosion and produce smoke during burning.
Brick burning is one of activities which the National Environmental Action Plan cited as major contributing factors to deforestation alongside tobacco leaf curing and beer brewing.
The plan which was made in the 1990s as a principal outcome of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), popularly referred to as The Earth Summit, which was held in Brazil in 1992.
The document details Malawi’s environmental situation, with proposals on how environmental degradation could be slowed down, arrested or even reversed. But more than 15 years later, Malawi’s environmental situation has worsened.
Chief Director for Environment and Climate Change Management in the Ministry of Mining, Environment and Natural Resources, Yanila Mtupanyama, says her ministry encourages that any government-funded project should now be using cement blocks or sustainable kind of bricks.
“What we have noted is that apart from cutting trees, we are also causing lots of damages to the soils in the communities. We are also creating some kind of dams. We have noted that we really haven’t reclaimed back our land.
“As the environment sector, we have also encouraged communities to refill the pits dug due to brick making. So in our environmental impact assessment there are mitigating measures that they have to follow so that the environment is brought back to normal, in a way reversing the environmental degradation,” she says.
Mtupanyama says the proposed Environmental Management Bill proposes banning brick making and provides suggestions for bricks that are made in a sustainable manner.
She says the bill is ready to be tabled in Parliament.
Malawi has already begun feeling the devastating effects of environmental degradation such as hunger due to inadequate rains.
It has also experienced floods due to high deforestation rate, as there are no trees to hold the water anymore.
It appears people of T/As phambala and Makwangwala will continue to cut down trees for brick making unless they get an alternative.
Perhaps maximising on the wisdom of the Watsons would help solve the situation.