Malawi: Reforestation champion promotes tree planting and natural regeneration

| June 6, 2024

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On a sunny Friday, Kenneth Wiyo, a lecturer at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, visits a newly forested area outside Lilongwe. Since 2006, he has collaborated with communities to reforest 12 hectares of land, as well as integrating crops and trees in nearby areas. Efforts include planting various trees and promoting natural regeneration. This initiative addresses deforestation in Malawi, offering community members benefits like firewood, income from selling honey, and healthy soil. Local biodiversity has also improved significantly, with the forests attracting various bird species.

It’s a crisp and sunny Friday morning and Kenneth Wiyo, a 62-year-old lecturer at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, has no classes today. So he is free to drive 30 kilometres to a newly forested area just outside Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.

Since 2006, Mr. Wiyo has been working with communities to plant various types of trees and allow natural regeneration of other trees on 12 hectares of deforested land called the Likhuwe forest. He helped plan and implement these activities in the Diampwi area, in Lilongwe rural, as well as on a 50-hectare piece of land in Ntcheu district, 200 km from Lilongwe city. He also teaches villagers from communities near these two areas about the benefits of reforestation. 

Mr. Wiyo explains, “The motive was that we should restore watersheds so that they are full of trees, but we also wanted to demonstrate that we can integrate crops and trees in the farming zone.”

In Malawi, deforestation, habitat loss, and forest degradation are among the most critical issues facing the country, and past efforts at afforestation have not been a great success. Mr. Wiyo says that people are cutting down more trees than are being planted. The Malawi Forestry Department says that over 50,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed, but only a third of that has been replanted, which means that the country is losing its forests.

Mr. Wiyo adds, “Most people feel like it is not worthwhile for them to plant and care for trees where it is cheaper to source firewood from communal forests or illegally from forest reserves.” 

He has planted and supervised community members planting a variety of trees in the two areas, including blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus), pine, and acacias. Species such as white mahogany (Khaya anthotheca), Africa teak (Pterocarpus angloensis), and zebrawood (Brachystegia spiciformis) are growing in the areas reserved for natural regeneration.

Some villages are short on land, so it is not easy to set any aside for reforestation. So villagers are planting trees, mostly acacias, on the boundaries of crop fields. 

According to Mr. Wiyo, reforestation through planting trees is expensive because of the cost of seedlings. But natural regeneration is affordable and can also bring back a forest, as it promotes the natural regrowth of trees and vegetation on degraded lands.

He notes that the government has been providing citizens with social cash transfers. He says, “Right now people are being given money for free, and we think that the same money can be used to reforest Malawi using either regeneration or planting new trees.”

Currently, the communities around the reforested areas are benefiting by accessing firewood and poles from blue gum trees. Pine and blue gum trees grow very quickly. Blue gum trees can provide shade three years after planting. The community cuts trees once every one to three years, under the strict supervision of village heads. Collecting and marketing firewood can provide a sizable income for villagers.

Esmie Senzani is a 45-year-old woman from Jeremani village in Traditional Authority Chiseka, which surrounds the forest. She says the trees shade the soil and reduce soil evaporation, keeping the soil moist, which makes farms more resilient to extreme heat.

Mrs. Senzani lives close to a forested area and says that the forest keeps them safe during severe wind storms, even preventing homes from being destroyed.

She adds: “The forest helps us in many ways. Back then, we even had a firewood issue, but now that the forest is close by, we don’t have that challenge as we will most likely find firewood as we enter this woodland.” 

Patrick Kwaitha is a 26-year-old man who says that the forest provides villagers with compost, which they apply to gardens and farms. He explains that they gather blue gum leaves, then store and water them once a week until they turn into compost. This reduces the need for purchased fertilizer.

The forest also boosts local biodiversity. It is a home for bees, and, since the area was reforested, there are a number of beehives throughout the forest. The beehives belong to villagers, and Mr. Wiyo has also mounted some. The villagers make a reasonable amount of money selling honey, which they use to buy basic needs such as food and school fees.

Before reforestation, crows were the only birds seen in the area. But Likhuwe forest is now home to the wood thrush, whose songs enchant forest visitors. Other resident bird species include the red-billed quelea, red-eyed canary, and turtledoves.

Photo: Kenneth Wiyo in the forests of Malawi, 2024, captured by Lovemore Khomo.