By Alick Ponje:
The scorching heat in Neno is not some outlandish phenomenon in September. The hilly and rock-strewn southern Malawi district, bordering Blantyre, Mwanza, Balaka and Ntcheu, has always been faithful in its fidelity to searing weather.
But now, the branchy trees, that used to provide convenient shades with their foliage when the sun struck most, have slowly disappeared, leaving only scanty spiky shrubs both in homes and distant fields.
In Traditional Authority (T/A) Symon, thin pillars of charcoal-grey smoke billow above craggy bare hills and knolls, fortifying the message that locals here are stanch about their race towards ruin.
Every thud of a tree they chop tells them that their illegal business is threatening their own lives.
“We know that what we are doing is illegal. It is a war against the government because the forests we are clearing belong to the government,” Kaliati Sawa of Nkoka Village, T/A Symon, admits.
But he is adamant about his charcoal business.
Outside his house, a raw-brick grass-thatched structure on an open ground, there are sacks and stacks of charcoal waiting to be ferried to Blantyre some 100 kilometres away, where most urban sprawls use them.
At the time of our visit, Sawa and two others, with whom he is producing charcoal, concede that they have cleared forests which were closer to their village, leaving fields that were once thick bare.
Now, they have to cover several kilometres to find trees which they ferry to their desired spots where they burn them down under huge banks that make the kilns.
“Sometimes, we feel the effort that goes into this business and what we get do not match. We continue doing this because of poverty,” Sawa says.
Elsewhere, similar sets of characters trifling with the fate of humanity are strewn all over, at the feet of bare hills, playing out familiar acts in places authorities dread to reach.
Hilly locations that were once heaving with trees are now left with sparse frail shrubs with panicles of mostly white woolly flowers and terminal spikes.
On our way to spots where Sawa and his friends are producing charcoal, from a distance, we continue to see the thin poisoned fumes that are wafting into the already troubled skies.
“We know we are facing a bleak future. We know the business we are in is very dangerous not only because we are flouting laws but because once the forests are gone, disasters will be common. Already dry spells are hitting us,” Sawa laments.
He does not look and sound penitent enough, though, as he and his colleagues take us through rugged paths bordered by smoke bushes that constantly survive fires raging through grassy wild fields.
Neno seems a symbol of doleful lack. Poverty reigns in many homes which, in turn, have to count on untenable businesses to survive.
For people in this tiny southern Malawi district, at one point, climate change seemed a distant concept that meant very little.
Their seemingly small acts which result in the production of greenhouse gases were practically being swept under the carpet.
“It sometimes did not really sound true that climate change would be here. It is not easy for locals like us to believe such messages,” another Neno charcoal producer, Limbani Bondo, said recently.
But the past few years, they have experienced the effects of the global tragedy where natural disasters have wiped out crops and livestock, fortifying their poverty. And forecasts warn of more drastic ruinous incidences.
At the base of a bare hill—a narrow band that stretches to the sun-drenched banks of the Shire River which is also being threatened by human practices—a kiln is burning slowly.
The giant is calm, almost sleeping, before it turns into a furious torrent as it rages down the bouldering hills.
Thomson Maziya, who comes from the same village as Sawa, explains the destructive process of producing charcoal, which he reckons is blood, sweat and tears—acts that are flying in the teeth of efforts to conserve the environment.
“We cut the trees using axes, then we chop them at certain intervals before ferrying them to where we make the kilns,” he says.
There are no trees anywhere near the place where he and his colleagues have their charcoal kilns. This means they have to cover several kilometres to find trees in forests that are also fast being depleted.
“For this kiln,” Maziya says, pointing at a huge bank with logs burning underneath, “we got the trees very far away, maybe five kilometres. We clumber up rocky hills to get the wood. We cannot make the kilns there because the places are full of rocks.”
Like Sawa, Maziya concedes that their business is a scrimmage with laws.
“Many times, away from where we produce our charcoal, we engage in running battles with forestry officials, but it is our business. We know it is government’s forests and they prohibit anyone from cutting trees there,” he confesses.
Globally, weather patterns are becoming more extreme and greenhouse gas emissions are now at their highest levels in history and it is the poorest and most vulnerable like charcoal producers in Neno that are also most affected.
Yet, continuously, they are engaging in acts that are doubling the threats each passing day.
For its striking policies and other pieces of legislation designed to mitigate against climate change, Malawi continues to have its reserved areas being wrecked.
Last year, the government launched the National Charcoal Strategy which has various pillars of dealing with illegal charcoal production like what is being done in Nkoka Village in Neno.
An important component of the strategy is to do with law enforcement where authorities are supposed to bust all illegal charcoal production ventures.
But, in this part of Malawi, forestry officials do not come close to where locals are producing charcoal. It is a gamble with their lives, so we understand.
“It is dangerous business. But, at least, Forestry officials have never been here. It is when we take the charcoal to the main road that we often come across them where they confiscate it.
“They take the charcoal to their offices where they sell it cheaply or their homes where they use it. That also abets this business because if we gained something, we would stop the business,” Sawa charges.
Director of Forestry, Clement Chilima, concedes that, on top of his officials, others in public institutions are also abetting charcoal production and, by extension, depletion of forests.
That, Chilima says, frustrates efforts to deal with the trade which once attracted the involvement of Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers who were deployed in hotspots mostly in the imperilled Dzalanyama Forest Reserve.
“Although charcoal production, of late, seems to have started increasing again, we have trained and armed our forest rangers and posted them in various forests to deal with illegal charcoal production.
“In Dzalanyama [Forest Reserve], a lot of charcoal is illegally being produced up to date. There were some misunderstandings where our colleagues from MDF were pulled out but we are working on that,” Chilima says.
As forests vanish, he is vexed about the catastrophe that will befall Malawi which even now continues to reel from the upshots of climate change.
“There will be more serious problems. Without forests, water will be scarce. Soil erosion will be common and agriculture production will lower,” he warns.
But there are those who advance that if authorities were serious about curbing illegal charcoal production, they would trace where it first takes place and root it out from that basic point without waiting for the fuel source to find its way onto roads.
Sawa even blows up at forestry officials whom he charges are preventing his trade from having a cut-off point as they sell the confiscated charcoal to the same people the producers target.
And the threat of climate change keeps growing with the kind of charcoal business that has rendered most of Neno, a place which once had village parks consisting of plots of grassy land, practically bare.
Charcoal producers here seem to have nothing to stop at as they are targeting places which authorities do not reach; locations which could be hotbeds of more illegal activities.
That their acts are damning the future of humanity seems to be outside their scope.
Each and every day, they are felling trees, burning them and producing the energy source that is precipitating climate change.
But the rate at which forests are vanishing is atypical of the slower pace of life in these rural areas.