Much of Malawi was once forested. But population pressures and financial difficulties have resulted in dwindling native forest and a reliance on quick-growing species which are felled young to meet fuel demands. Having travelled across the country, Cathy Ratcliff tells the story. 

It’s tempting when you see the tree plantations in north Malawi, and the pine trees on the high plateau where Scottish missionaries founded Livingstonia, to think that the trees might be of Scottish origin. Indeed, you could be in north Scotland, with clear-felled areas, trees arranged in rows of similar ages, and red bark on pine trees. You could almost be looking at Sitka Spruce and Scots Pine.

In fact, the missionaries brought their healthcare, education, and religion, but the “exotic” pine trees growing on Livingstonia plateau now are not Scottish. Lightson Kasanga, Senior Forestry Assistant in the local Forestry Department office, tells me that the exotics are mainly Patula and Melina pine. His English faltering, he names them excitedly in Latin – Pinus patula and Gmelina arborea – seemingly the only names he has for them. But the native trees come first to him in local Tumbuka and Chichewa languages – Mlombwe, Mbawa, Masuku, and Katope – and only second in Latin. I find out later that these are Bleedwood, White Mahogany, Sugar Plum, and Avocado.

Lightson says that Dr. Laws, who founded the mission in the late nineteenth century, did bring seeds from Scotland. But slave-traders also brought seeds and traded them for slaves. Seeds were valuable; a currency. Perhaps the Scottish missionaries brought them not just to make their new homes more homely, but to give to the chiefs and so undermine the slave trade. Regardless of origin, the exotic species that outsiders brought are sought after even today. Indigenous trees can take up to 70 years to grow timber strong enough to build a bridge, says Lightson, while the exotic pines take only 25 years to grow timber for planks. But Eucalyptus, the more recently introduced and now ubiquitous species, takes only 3 years from seed to telegraph pole.

The arrival of modernity: trees are felled to widen the road and ease internet access on the plateau. © Cathy Ratcliff. All Rights Reserved.

The Forestry Department tries to get households to plant Bleedwood cuttings and Mahogany and Teak seedlings, all of which the Department can give in small quantities for free. Malawi’s population is growing at 2.8  each year, and in its densely populated areas, reforestation has to happen on smallholdings. But government resources are slim, especially since the Cashgate scandal of 2013 which made international donors slow down their donations to Malawi.

The Forestry Department is, like other departments, strapped for cash. It lacks money for environmental and tree-care education, and it lacks fuel for wide-ranging tree distributions. And people are poor, their land is valuable to them for growing maize, and they have little understanding of the nitrogen-fixing value of broad-leaved trees or time to wait for them to mature. They need food and income now, and that means felling trees young.

And so from here you also see hillsides with few trees and little vegetation. Population increase and a mainly rural population mean that land for subsistence farming is becoming more scarce. A rash of deliberate forest fires in plantations may be motivated by the desire to clear land for cultivation, while inefficient cooking methods (often three stones, a fire, and a pot balanced on top) mean that people quickly use the young trees that they’ve grown for charcoal and firewood. And so where they plant trees at all on their smallholdings, they prefer the faster-growing eucalyptus to the exotic pine, or the slowly maturing native trees.

Indeed, in its plantations too, like many African countries, Malawi has turned from planting evergreen pine trees to growing fast crops of Eucalyptus. Locals, preferring views of the pine trees with which they grew up, are suspicious of plantation owners’ motivations, although Lightson explains the change as being due to eucalyptus’ greater resistance to disease. But eucalyptus is notorious for its consumption of water, and does not bring the environmental benefits of the longer-growing, shade-giving, nitrogen-fixing, native or pine trees. Similarities to Scotland abound too, in debates about plantations versus smallholdings, who owns the plantations, and introduced versus native species.

Much of Malawi is barely forested. This image, with a solitary tree in the foreground and bare, dry, sparsely vegetated landscape in the background illustrates the problem.
Much of Malawi is now barely forested. © Cathy Ratcliff. All Rights Reserved

Trees were a big part of life in Malawi, and household farmers would like them to be again – if only they could afford to wait for the more valuable trees to yield fruit and money. Something more is needed to help the people grow the trees that will most benefit the environment, their smallholdings, and ultimately their pockets, helping them to move beyond subsistence farming. And here the missionaries may play their role again, this time through schools.

Irish missionary couple Lyn and Johnny Dowds are the latest doctor couple to be based in this Scottish-founded mission. Joining up with missionary Malawians Vincent Kalua and Austin Chirwa, and businesspeople Vijay Yadav and Mike Haswell, they have set up Living Trees of Livingstonia, to bring about a forest of trees in the smallholdings spread over the plateau and hillsides. Five primary schools have jumped at the opportunity to test their gardening skills with fast-growing chillis, which have already fetched a high price. And fully 21 primary schools are planning how school orchards could grow: they distribute together over 27,000 seedlings to households around the plateau and on its hillsides; sell over 20,000 seedlings to large buyers such as the Forestry Department; and grow to maturity yet another 20,000 trees in their school orchards. The scheme could bring profit to schools anxious for money to provide school dinners, businesses keen to get cheaper seedlings, and households in need of farming inputs and advice. Advice for the ambitious plan could soon begin to flow in from Edinburgh-based ‘Leith Community Crops In Pots‘, experienced in community-owned gardening ventures. This will be critical for helping keep the schools’ priorities to the fore.

Time will tell whether this time we see the dreams of missionaries, environmentalists, Forestry Department, and poor householders alike come true. Certainly 67,000 trees would not go amiss.

Cathy Ratcliff has worked in development co-operation for 25 years, and has lived in Scotland, Russia, China, and Ethiopia. She is completing a PhD on Russian and Western development discourses, at the University of Edinburgh. She is on Twitter at: @cathyratcliff 

Feature image: Smallholdings across Malawi have land which could be used to plant more trees. © Cathy Ratcliff. All Rights Reserved.