Decades of rural farmers practicing shifting cultivation have threatened indigenous trees in the district of Karonga in northern Malawi. They have also threatened the livelihood of Benjamin Kalowekamo, a herbalist, who depends on local plants to mix his healing concoctions.
“Certain types of trees, which our ancestors prayed underneath, asking for the heavens to open up for rains, have been hacked away [for farming purposes and firewood]. Life is threatened if natural resources are not protected,” says Kalowakamo, who lives in Mwalwanda village near Karonga, adding that “culture and the environment are therefore inseparable.”
Although herbalists are often seen as contributors to the loss of indigenous trees and shrubs because they use them to prepare traditional medicines, Kalowakamo decided to join a programme initiated by the Cultural and Museums Centre Karonga to fight deforestation. He now helps to educate communities about the importance of preserving indigenous plants.
In the search for fertile soils, Malawi’s small-scale farmers practise shifting agriculture, clearing away new plots in forests every couple of years to plant their crop.
About 30 years ago, Kalowekamo only had to walk a stone’s throw from his home to find the ingredients for his natural medicines. He has a large patient base since most people in rural Malawi seek the assistance of herbalists or traditional doctors as the first port of call instead of going to clinics or hospitals.
“But that is history. Today, I have to trek more than 20 kilometres to the countryside, and that means closing my clinic for two days or more. That is a disservice to my patents,” he laments.
Hopefully, the deforestation programme will help to change this. Over the next four years, the centre aims to plant new trees and label existing plants on 27,000 hectares of land.
Archibald Mwakasungura, one of the museum’s founders and project managers, believes the programme will directly benefit 100,000 people, while a further 300,000 in other parts of the district are also expected to benefit indirectly from the aforestation and the protection of water catchment areas.
“The programme involves labelling trees and other plants so that people know their importance and hence the need for protection. We are also trying to protect water catchments areas through aforestation, using both indigenous and exotic plants,” he explains.
In consideration for people’s need for firewood, the project encourages local residents to plant specific areas with fast-growing, exotic trees that they can cut down without harming the environment.
Moreover, communities are taught about nursery establishment, woodlot management, natural resources conservation and mapping as well as local forest management.
To get local buy-in from the community, the centre has teamed up with Kalowekamo, who, as a herbalist, is a leader in his community and has strong influence on its members. He acts as a role model, convincing other residents to change their ways.
“I want to preserve what has been passed down to me by my ancestors, so that I can continue helping the community,” Kalowekamo explains his interest in collaborating with the centre.
Joseph Mwalwanda, headman of Mwalwanda village in Karonga district, also acknowledges the negative impact of deforestation of his community, which is now exposed to flush floods, droughts and dry spells.
“Most areas have no trees anymore, because we cut them down to open news fields. Generations are still coming, and what will they have?” he asks.
Mwalwanda blames local farmers not only for soil degradation and deforestation, but also for the drying out of streams and rivers. Because trees, dense bush and shrubs are cut down to clear fields, rainwater washes away instead of flowing into catchment areas near rivers.
But changing farming practices is a slow process. Since it was launched four years ago, the project is yet to show first results. “Due to the protection of water catchment areas and river banks, people in some areas are expecting their streams and rivers to start flowing,” says Jando Nkhwazi, director of the Rural Foundation for Aforestation in Mzuzu, a non-profit organisation also involved in the project.
But he only expects to see tangible results in the next ten years – the time it takes for trees to grow to medium height.