BLANTYRE, Malawi (AlertNet) – Malawi’s traditional leaders have been enlisted to help prevent forest fires that are threatening livelihoods, producing climate-changing emissions and damaging the environment in this southeast African nation.
“As community leaders we should take a leading role in preventing and putting out fires,” said Paramount Chief M’mbelwa of Mzimba during a meeting on fire prevention in the government-owned Viphya plantation.
Those efforts may include things like improving labour relations to curb arson fires by disgruntled plantation employees, and limiting the sale of beer within plantations, as drinking is linked to fires from dropped cigarettes, and limiting the use of muzzleloader guns, also believed to be setting off fires.
In 2010, fires damaged nearly 9,000 hectares (22,000 acres) of trees in the plantation, whose 54,000 hectares (132,000 acres) make it one of Africa’s largest manmade forests.
In recent years, warmer temperatures in the region, likely related to climate change, have worsened the risk of fires and the extent of outbreaks. Mzuzu, the city closest to the Viphya plantation, used to be known for its year-round cool temperatures, but the mercury there now soars as high as 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer.
Last year’s fires started raging in September and peaked around October, the hottest and driest month in the country.
One-third of Malawi is forested, but Viphya is the only major plantation and is an important source of timber. The timber milling industry gives employment to many local people. Villagers also use the forest to gather firewood and forage for mushrooms.
Plantation manager Seliano Chipokosa said that 65 percent of the young trees affected by last year’s fires were severely damaged and may not recuperate. Estimates of the economic cost in terms of lost revenue, fire fighting and damage to equipment in the plantation were not available.
As the dry season nears once more, some traditional leaders feel they have a role to play both in preventing the fires and in managing any outbreak. In Malawi, traditional leaders – from village heads to paramount chiefs whose jurisdiction covers large geographic areas – inherit their moral authority by birth, and their pronouncements are heeded by communities and given weight in courts of law.
At the recent meeting in the Viphya plantation, organised by Raiply Malawi Limited – a 20,000 hectare (49,000 acre) concession holder within the plantation – the traditional leaders agreed to set up committees to help prevent and extinguish fires.
The leaders discussed factors that may contribute to the outbreak of fires, including smoking and the sale of beer within the plantation and the use of locally made muzzleloader guns for hunting, as the bullets contain match heads that can ignite fires when shot.
“Most of those who get intoxicated on the beer sold within the plantation fail to manage burning cigarettes, resulting in the fires. Since these people live under our jurisdiction, we can stop them from selling beer within the plantation. This would (help) prevent the fires. That aside, we can stop them from using the muzzle loaders,” said M’mbelwa, whose jurisdiction covers the entire Mzimba district, the biggest in Malawi.
Some participants at the meeting acknowledged that a bigger cause of fires in Viphya, over half of which is in Mzimba, is arson by disaffected employees of the timber mills.
IMPROVING LABOUR RELATIONS
“People who set the plantation on fire because of the labour related conflicts with their employers should know that this plantation is bigger than their employers,” said Mzukuzuku, who holds the rank of Traditional Authority, or Inkosi in the local Ngoni language.
“Employers should pay their employees on time and we should suggest that if there is need for staff retrenchment then it should be done in the rainy season so that any attempt to vent anger by torching the plantation is futile,” he added.
The traditional leaders also agreed to mobilise their communities to take a leading role in fighting the fires and preparing fire breaks.
However, inadequate investment in fire fighting equipment in the plantation – employees have to cut fire breaks armed only with machetes, for example – means that an emphasis on prevention through the sensitisation of local people is seen as the best approach.
Plantation manager Chipokosa said the initiative by the chiefs will be of great help in saving the forest.
“Most of last year’s fires started from within or around the forests, which means they were started by people who live under these traditional leaders,” said Chipokosa.
“These traditional leaders should play a big role in curbing the fires because they can easily control what their subjects do,” he added.
Karen Sanje is a Malawi-based freelance writer with an interest in climate issues.