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Encroachers Mount Pressure on Michiru and Lengwe Reserves

Encroachers Mount Pressure on Michiru and Lengwe Reserves

Encroachers are increasingly becoming arrogant. Our visit at Michiru Nature Sanctuary in Blantyre a few days ago revealed a worrisome trend.

People from surrounding areas, especially those from Mdala village, are fearlessly entering the protected area in groups of 30 to 50 people on almost a daily basis to plunder its resources.

One officer here told us that the people have resorted to moving in groups for them to easily overpower law enforcement personnel. While there, we noticed the merciless and numerous scars of wanton cutting down of trees.

We were not just told, but saw some areas where the damage is huge. Illegal soil mining for brick making, burning of bricks, charcoal production and firewood are the key activities attributing to the rampant illegal tree cutting in the eastern part of the sanctuary.

Another law enforcement officer confided in us that the notorious villagers pelt stones at game rangers while others are armed with catapults and machetes to scare the rangers.

A March 2024 Joint Report on the state of Michiru Sanctuary authored by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, Department of Forestry in and Wildlife Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM) shows that in the last 20 years, 55 percent of the sanctuary has been degraded due to deforestation. This is a result of charcoal production, firewood, timber and burning of bricks. Trees are also cut to clear land for crop cultivation.

“Rangers conduct patrols, of which sometimes are done jointly with forestry officers, police and MDF to enforce the Wildlife Act (Amendment 2018) and Forestry Act (2022) that resulted in at least 60 arrests in 2023,” states the report.

Michiru is the only remaining protected forest area in the commercial city of Blantyre after Ndirande and Soche were devastated between 1990 and 2000.

The reserve is divided into two sections: to the south and west is the Michiru Forest Reserve which is 2,700 hectares and is managed by the Department of Forestry and to the north and east is Michiru Nature Sanctuary, 304 hectares, managed by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife.

It is the sanctuary that now remains with natural woodland and some wild animals such as bush bucks, baboons, velvet monkeys, blue monkeys and hyenas while the huge part of the forest reserve is devastated. It is estimated that 800 hectares of land has been encroached and converted into farm land in the southern section of the reserve.

A villager, Saulosi Mgabiza, who regularly represents Village Head Mdala on several delegated assignments, admits that people are cutting down trees and mining soil in Michiru Forest for survival.

“As you can see many people here are poor and they do not have any source of income. For them to eat and get other basic needs, they enter the forest to cut down trees for firewood, charcoal and brick burning,” said Mgabiza.

On his part, Village Headman Maneya suggests enhancement of income generating activities targeting the surrounding areas which would reduce their reliance on the forest and promoting a sense of ownership of the sanctuary among the people.

“I know that many people from Mdala village go into the forest to excavate soil for brick making while my villagers enter the protected area to cut trees for firewood and charcoal production for them to get money. There is a need to empower villagers economically,” he says.

Recently, the British High Commissioner to Malawi Fiona Ritchie expressed worry over the ongoing depletion of natural resources in the sanctuary.

Ritchie said her government will continue to strengthen collaboration and partnerships with the government of Malawi to halt the wanton cutting down of threes in the reserve.

“I feel anxious and I feel sad, I feel we have to stop this now for it has already gone too far and I think we need to work together with the community across a range of different issues.

“It is obvious to me that poverty is one of the major drivers of what is happening in the protected area,” explained Ritchie.

Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM) feels Malawi needs to ban the making of burnt bricks in cities and ensure full protection of protected areas.

WESM National Chairperson Dr Tionge Mzumara Gawa says time is now to stop the further spread of these illegal activities.

“Many cities in Africa have banned the production of red bricks because they fuel massive deforestation. Malawi needs to emulate this. It is also important to spearhead better law enforcement and provision of adequate equipment to game rangers,” says Dr Gawa.

Similarly, a January 31, 2023 Lengwe Boundary Re-affirmation Progress Report in Chikwawa district also reveals a trend of systimatic encroachment. Some people at Finias village in Chapanaga and Zalera village under Traditional Authority Ndakwera in the district established graveyards inside the park. The report calls for an order to stop the people to stop extending graveyards into the park.

It further states that some people, including those from Suweni village, are farming in the park in addition to past incidents where several people settled right in the protected area.

The encroachment has prevented the installation of the beacons along the Lengwe boundary after a fierce tussle erupted between law enforcers and communities at Therere village in Ngabu area on November 17, 2023.

As the situation was turning worse, the beacon building team was advised to withdraw and remove a beacon mold they had installed. Stoning and firing of tear gas continued as the team tried to find its way out of the village. Villagers store and vandalised the beacons as the team left.

However, some progress was still made. An accumulative total of 166 out of targeted 189 beacons were installed along the park boundary in the extension area around villages of Ngabu, Ndakwera and Chapananga.

Chairperson for Farawo Village Development Committee (VDC) in Ndakwera insists that authorities have gone beyond the original boundaries of the park.

“We are against the installation of these beacons. We know the original boundary of Lengwe; this is not proper. That is the reason people are against this,” insists Burton.

What is happening in Michiru Sanctuary and Lengwe National Park is contrary to efforts aimed at achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Number 15 which entails that countries “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and reverse land degradation".

Director of Parks and Wildlife in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Brighton Kumchedwa has equally expressed worry over increased illegal activities in Michiru and Lengwe forest reserves, saying steps are being taken to deal with the encroachers.

“We will not tell you what we intend to do but be assured that an appropriate action will be taken,” said Kumchedwa.

He adds that surrounding communities should develop a spirit of owning the two protected areas and not damage them, saying the government is prepared to cooperate with the people in such a cause having learnt from the successes of similar approaches elsewhere.

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Last modified on Thursday, 28/03/2024

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