Where have all the trees gone in Malawi?

Malawi a small poor African country once considered a jungle is now nearly treeless.

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“Where did all the trees go?”
Before making our journey north from South Africa Russ read a book about Malawi. An early explorer from about a hundred years ago traversed the jungles of this small African country. He writes of thick undergrowth, mountains teeming with wildlife, lush green and hundreds of birds. Russ awaited our time in Malawi with great anticipation.

Clear cut land. Burnt trees. Dry fields. Dusty roads. Even the supposed forests in the mountain areas of Mulanje, Zomba and Chelinda have only few trees. At the base of Mount Mulanje at Camp Lujeri we get a taste of what it might have been. In the midst of gigantic tea plantations is this little jungle paradise. (Watch the video of our night here.) Our hike on the Zomba plateau is sadly through charred forest. A few lonely giants are reminders of yesteryear. After driving part way up to Chilinda we decide to turn around. It wasn’t the rough road, Russ loves driving those in the Landy. It was the near treeless landscape and the smoke and fires that did it.

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Although to be fair it is the dry season. The grass, and what trees remain, surely transform from tawny dust to green. Then Russ points out the beautiful old trees in the camps we stay at along Lake Malawi. From Cape McClear in the south all the way to Ngara in the north. Most of these camps (we guesstimate) to be around 20 years old or less. So the entire coastline of Lake Malawi may have been lined with these amazing trees and lush vegetation not too long ago.

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So what’s happened since the explorer was enthralled by the splendor of Malawi?
Where did all the trees go?

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I’m not an expert on this at all, but here’s what we observed.

Charcoal production

Electricity and other forms of fuel are lacking in most villages, actually even on the outskirts of the cities. Charcoal is the inexpensive alternative. It has become a booming industry in much of Africa we’re told. Charcoal is produced in the rural areas and shipped to the larger communities to sell. To make charcoal trees are cut down, chopped up and placed in a hole in the ground. This hole creates a kiln of sorts. So, more wood is needed to make the fire that transforms the rest of the wood into charcoal. As you can imagine when raw material is readily available, free of charge, many have turned to producing charcoal. Even mature fruit bearing mango trees are hewn down for a few bags of charcoal.

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Brick making

Again, free materials are used, dirt and wood. Dirt is fashioned into bricks and stacked up. A mud layer is smeared on the outside. Tunnel like holes are left on the bottom where wood is fed in and burned. A one-time-use kiln is created. We saw numerous trees felled to feed one brick kiln. During the dry season many farmers turn to brick making, so these brick kilns are found everywhere. Many are abandoned, or only part of the bricks used. When we spent time poking around a kiln we saw that some bricks were ‘fired’ while others still appeared quite ‘raw’. Obviously it is a bit more complex a process than some might think it is.

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Food cooking

Then there are still those who can’t afford the charcoal and simply cut wood each day for their needs. Some trees are totally chopped down, while others simply the limbs are taken, leaving the trunk desolate.

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“It’s been getting hotter each year, with the rains coming later,” one camp manager told us. If this is a scientific fact I don’t know, however, with the yearly loss of more and more trees it simply has to impact the rainfall.

Did we enjoy our four weeks in Malawi? Definitely. The people are friendly. The lake stunning. The birds at the camps still quite plentiful. And, life is relaxed. However, as Russ thinks of the book he read and what the explorer found a century ago it is quite sad to see the damaging human footprint.

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