People Centered Forest Policy for Malawi

People Centered Forest Policy for Malawi

"My forest, my life" echoes as the theme for the National Forestry Season for 2013/14 in a Malawi, a country reputed to have the highest deforestation rate and land degradation on the African continent. Illegal charcoal production, wanton cutting down of trees and encroachment in protected forests have destroyed the picture of the once lush miombo forests of the country.

Amid all the increased forest destruction that goes on, almost unabated, the government still recognizes the important contribution of forests to the national economy. According to the Economic Valuation of Sustainable Natural Resources Use in Malawi, 2011, it is refreshing to realise that forests make a hefty 6.1% contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Additionally, forests and trees are important in environmental protection and provision of environmental goods and services that are often times difficult to measure in terms of the actual financial contributions and benefits to the country.

It has been argued that the contributions of the forestry sector to the GDP are subsumed under the agriculture sector and do not take into account the value of non-wood forest products, processed timber or the informal trade in fuel wood and charcoal; not to mention the informal employment sector. It is a fact that most of the rural poor depend on subsistence goods such as fuel wood, medicines, construction poles, rope, bush meat, fodder, mushrooms, honey, edible leaves, roots and fruits for their livelihoods. As a result, the true value of forests and their potential to contribute to poverty reduction and improved livelihoods is significantly underestimated.

The Department of Forestry under the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Management reports that Malawi forests have registered a high deforestation rate estimated at 1 to 2.8% representing an annual average loss of 164,500ha to 460,600ha of forest cover. The direct causes of deforestation include agricultural expansion; human settlement; uncontrolled fires; unsustainable harvesting for energy (charcoal and firewood) and timber requirements.

Managing forest resources in Malawi can be a hurdle that involves several stakeholder partners. The main players in the management of forests are the majority of the rural poor whose livelihoods almost entirely depend on forests. It has become a norm that forests are a natural safety-net for the rural poor communities in times of need because they provide the necessary building materials, food, water, fodder and medicinal herbs and plants. Other players in this sector include natural resource based NGOs, faith institutions, academia, private sector and civil society. It is, therefore, evident that forest resources are requisite for the infrastructural and socio economic development of the country.

However, the government is increasingly concerned with the continued deforestation and forest degradation occurring in the country that has widened the gap between supply and demand of forest resources – demand is higher while the replenishment of forest resources is painstakingly slow and low. This has been exacerbated by the frequent forest fires that have destroyed an estimated 3,000ha of forests annually. Heartbreaking reports have indicated that the 53,000ha Viphya Industrial Plantations in the north has lost 23,302ha of industrial plantations between 2010 and 2013. Ironically, the Viphya Industrial Plantation is reputed to be the largest single man-made plantation in Africa – a pride for Malawi.

Regrettably the forestry sector in Malawi is implementing the National Forestry Policy of 1996 which is 18 years old and out-dated. Broadly, the National Forest Policy sought to sustain the contribution of the national forest resources to the upliftment of the quality of life in the country by conserving the resources for the benefit of the nation. The people-centered forestry policy puts people at the centre of development and provides them with the rights and means to manage their forest resources sustainably.

Eighteen years down the line there have been emerging issues globally, regionally and nationally that have had direct impact on trees and forests. In addition, new economic instruments and strategies have been developed and implemented with significant impacts on the management of forests. This has rendered the 1996 National Forestry Policy not only ineffective, but undoubtedly archaic and not in line with the prevailing situations. The National Forestry Policy is not in tandem with the fast changing times.

While the country continue to use the 1996 policy it has become glaringly evident that emerging issues of climate change, Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM), HIV and AIDS are missing from this policy.

These developments forced the Department of Forestry and interested stakeholder partners to consider revising the 1996 National Forestry Policy. Efforts have been underway to revise the forestry policy since 2010 with financial assistance from the UNDP under the Poverty and Environment Initiative (PEI), the European Union (EU) and the Malawi Government.

The focus of the Department of Forestry is to develop a forestry policy that aims to improve provision of forest goods and services and to contribute towards sustainable development of Malawi. This is in line with the Constitution of Malawi and the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy II (MGDS II), the over-arching development strategic framework of the country, which calls for sustainable management of natural resources and the environment.

Meanwhile, it is evident that new policies in the area of environment and natural resources management have been developed and most of the existing natural resources policies, and those policies that directly impact on forests, have been reviewed. As such it was inevitable that the Department of Forestry found it necessary to revise its policy to ensure that it remains current and it responds to new challenges. Furthermore, the forestry policy should incorporate experiences gained within the last 18 years.

Whilst the forestry sector continue to use the archaic policy, challenging factors in this realm affecting effective management of Malawi's forests have included the seemingly weak regulatory framework, increased corruption, low penalties and fines meted out on forestry offenders, and conflicts of policy guidelines in the natural resources sector. There are conflicting policies from different government departments that target the same audiences. This leads to confusion among the rural communities who seem to be towing different lines at the same time.

Notwithstanding inadequate forest law enforcement, there is poor knowledge and understanding of good forest management practice. The foregoing emphasizes the need to revise the forestry policy regularly to be in tandem with the changing times, and also that forest regulations require regular review to facilitate an acceptable environment for a vibrant and innovative forestry sector in the country.

The people-centered revised forestry policy aspires to control deforestation and forest degradation and to provide strategies that contribute to increased forest cover and sustainable management of the existing forest resources. The policy should aim at improving the provision of forest goods and services and contribute towards sustainable development of the country.

The process of revising the National Forestry Policy has been painstakingly long and slow. It has taken a consultative process approach with a wide range of stakeholders that include traditional leaders, individuals, district council officials, civil society, the private sector, statutory bodies, government departments and the academia to solicit their views on the policy implementation gaps. The reviewers of the policy have also considered other forestry policies from within the Central, Eastern and Southern African context to compare with the existing realities in the country.

The Department of Forestry expect to align its policy to bilateral and international agreements and conventions such as the Rio Declaration, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Montreal Protocol, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES).

It is anticipated that the revised National Forestry Policy will become a useful tool for all forestry sector stakeholders in the country for the integration of sustainable forest management that will provide social needs and economic development aspirations that adequately contribute to sustainable development of the country.

Perhaps only after going through the rigorous process of revising the forestry policy and attuning the populace to its aspirations will the people of the country strongly sing "My forest, my life" as the true personification of the forests and the people. This is the ideal "people centered" forest policy that the Department of Forestry aims to develop for the country. The forestry policy should hold meaning to the people of Malawi.

Charles Gondwe

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