Causes And Suggestion For Deforestation In Malawi

Deforestation is recognised as a major driver of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. In Malawi, deforestation is estimated to be responsible for the loss of 33,000 hectares per year. Thus, it's necessary to conduct the research aimed to identify and analyse the underlying driving factors associated with the proximate factors of agriculture expansion, tobacco growing, and brick burning in Mwazisi. By Susan Ngwira and Teiji Watanabe, Hokkaido University


Deforestation is known as one of the most important elements for changes in land use and land cover. 

It is recognised as a major driver of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Globally, it has been occurring at an alarming rate of 13 million hectares per year. 

It is believed that high population growth coupled with the rapid expansion of agriculture is responsible for the accelerated rates of deforestation, especially in developing countries.


Deforestation & Land Categories

Malawi is a developing country in which enormous pressure is being exerted on forest resources. 

Forest cover of the country reduced from 47 percent in 1975 to 36 percent in 2005. This is the highest deforestation rate in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, representing a net loss of some 30,000 to 40,000 hectares per year. 

This forest loss is mainly attributed to agriculture expansion and excessive use of biomass, such as wood, charcoal, and agricultural residues mostly used for cooking and heating. That is, biomass accounts for 88.5 percent of the country’s energy demand, 6.4 percent comes from petroleum, 2.8 percent from electricity (hydro power), and 2.4 percent from coal.

Agriculture is a source of livelihood for more than 90 percent of the rural and urban population and represents more than three quarters of national exports. The expansion of subsistence agriculture to meet the food needs of the burgeoning population has been one of the main causes of deforestation in Malawi. 

While 62 percent of the land was agriculture in 1991, by 2008, the agriculture land had reached 70 percent. In commercial farming, tobacco is one of the major export crops and accounts for approximately 67 percent of the export earnings from agriculture in Malawi. 

However, the percentage of deforestation caused by tobacco farming is very high—it reached 26 percent by the early 2000s. 

Tobacco is further ranked as the highest user of wood among non-household users in Malawi. It involves the use of wood and twigs in construction of barns for air-cured tobacco and firewood for fuel-cured tobacco. 

The construction industry is also heavily reliant on wood energy for brick production and is ranked second from tobacco in this regard. The brick-making industry alone consumes approximately 850,000 metric tons of wood per year. 

That is, biomass in the form of wood fuel is the largest form of primary energy consumed in Malawi. Malawi obtains 88 percent of its total energy and 98 percent of its household energy from traditional biomass, while access to modern energy is less than 10 percent. 

Inefficient production and unsustainable use of biomass energy have contributed to environmental degradation, such as high deforestation, desertification, and soil erosion.

There are three land categories in Malawi: public land, private land, and customary land. Public land is the land held in trust for the people of Malawi and managed by the government. 

Private land is the land that is registered as private under the Registered Land Act. Customary land is the land used for the benefit of the community as a whole within the boundaries of a traditional management area (Land Act 2016). 

Customary land is held or used by community members under customary law and is under the jurisdiction of the customary traditional authorities. The customary land makes up around 85 percent of the total land in Malawi. 

Forest resources on customary land are usually most accessible to the majority of the rural residents, and are also very important because they provide not only timbers/fuel wood but non-timber forest products for both rural and urban population. 

Although previous studies and projects have provided a fundamental understanding regarding the protection of forests and forests’ contribution to rural development, achieving a reduction in deforestation requires an understanding of how local people utilize and manage forest resources. 

That is, their behaviour and impact on the forests differ substantially, despite the fact that each local community operates under the same national legislation. 

Local-level data provide rich information on how people at the local level interact with forest resources. Conversely, country-level data on the rates of deforestation do little to help policymakers and scholars unravel the web comprising the causes of forest loss. 

Deforestation rates vary significantly within each country, and furthermore, an understanding of the causes of such dynamics and unique variation within the country is critical for the establishment of proper interventions.


Factors Or Causes

Several studies on agriculture expansion, benefits and trade-offs of tobacco, land tenure, biomass use, population, and poverty, and their impacts on forest resources have been conducted in Malawi. 

However, only a few studies have been conducted at the local level about the drivers of deforestation, especially on customary forest land.

There are some anthropogenic proximate factors or causes of deforestation, which are human activities or immediate actions such as agriculture expansion that directly impact forest cover. 

In the case of Malawi, agriculture expansion, tobacco growing, and brick production are regarded as the major proximate factors of deforestation. 

Underlying driving factors or forces are fundamental social processes such as population dynamics that underpin the proximate causes. 

Classification of the underlying driving factors varies from area to area as that of the proximate factors do. 

Deforestation has been discussed in a research framework of land science with the focus on the proximate factors and underlying driving factors; however, there are no studies using such a research framework in Malawi. 

This study, adopting this research framework, aims to identify and analyse forest cover change and the underlying driving factors associated with the proximate factors of deforestation on customary land in the rural area of Mwazisi, Malawi, where no research about the drivers of deforestation has been conducted to date.


Choosing Mwazisi Zone As Study Area

The Mwazisi zone, which is the customary land, is located to the west of the Rumphi district in the northern region of Malawi. 

It consists of six Village Development Committees (VDCs) under the Traditional Authority Chikulamayembe. 

Traditional Authority is a form of leadership in which the authority of an organisation or a ruling regime is largely tied to tradition or custom. 

The Mwazisi zone is located along Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve (VMGR) and covers an area of 117 km², which contains 1126 households. 

The total population of the study area is estimated to be approximately 6570. The area is mostly covered by Miombo woodlands with an average temperature of 22.5 deg C in the hot dry season. The highest average annual precipitation falls in the month of January is 191 mm.


Analysis On Forest Change & Drivers

The results of the classification on forest and land cover show that forest was the dominant land cover in the year 1991; however, it has declined tremendously over the years. Forest covered 66 percent of the area in 1991 and decreased to 45.8 percent in 2017. 

The annual rate of forest cover loss between 1991 and 2004 was 1.3 percent and increased to 1.6 percent in the period between 2004 and 2017.

Interviews show that most households (80.7 percent) depend on agriculture to support their daily livelihood while only 19.3 percent earn their living through business and employment. 

All households grow a crop of maize as a staple food, and for the past 15 years, 47.6 percent of the households have expanded their maize farm. 

On average, each household has expanded its agriculture land by approximately 0.57 hectares during the past 15 years. Most households (91.2 percent) expanded their maize farms due to an increase in family size (on average, each household has four children) and a lack of farm inputs. 

The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient also shows a positive correlation between the frequency of the agriculture expansion and the number of children in a household.

Tobacco is the main cash crop in the area and is grown by 45.4 percent of households, while the remaining households depend on subsistence farming. 

Of the tobacco farmers, 46.4 percent expanded their agriculture land by an average of approximately 0.39 hectares per year. 

These farmers expanded their agriculture land mainly to increase earnings or profit. The type of tobacco grown in the study area is burley, which is air-cured in barns.

There are three types of building materials in Mwazisi: clay bricks, mud, and wood. Clay bricks are the main building material and are used by 65.7 percent of the households. 

Clay bricks are burned before their use in construction and the source of energy is wood. 

Of the brick-walled houses in the area, 68 percent used wood from the forests and 31 percent used wood left over after the clearing of land for agriculture. 

Field results show that each brick-walled house used 4 metric tons of wood, on average.

An analysis of the market systems of various crops grown in the area shows that tobacco has a well-developed market structure designed to reach smallholder farmers in the rural areas. 

The tobacco crops are sold to international companies based in the capital city of Lilongwe. The tobacco growing is practiced as a form of contract farming, which helps smallholder farmers by providing access to the market, inputs, and extension services. 

That is, tobacco companies provide loans, expertise, and transportation of the farm produce to the tobacco market. 

However, it is more expensive and difficult for smallholder farmers to obtain expertise and loans on crops such as ground nuts, maize, and soybeans. This has resulted in an increase in the number of tobacco farmers despite its impact on the forests and environment.

A comparison of the average price of tobacco crop with others grown in the area, such as maize, groundnuts, and soybeans has shown that tobacco has had the highest average price over the years. This motivated 71.3 percent of the farmers while the availability of loans and the market motivated 28.8 percent. 

However, a comparison of the average yield per hectare per year shows that maize has the highest average yield, followed by groundnuts.

There are no population data for the study area; however, there are data for Rumphi. There is an increasing trend in population in the district and an annual population growth rate of Rumphi is 3.4 percent. This has resulted in an increase in demand for land for both settlement and agriculture.

The Forest Act is a fundamental tool for proper forest use and management of private, customary, and public land in Malawi. The results from the field survey, however, show that 95.2 percent of households are unfamiliar with the Act. 

Most households (97.7 percent) are unaware of the prohibition of forest wood extraction for brick burning. Furthermore, 97.8 percent of tobacco farmers are unaware of the prohibition of forest wood extraction for tobacco processing.

The focus group discussion and interviews with the officers from agriculture and forestry reveal the existence of financial and material constraints in the district. This has led to a reduction in field activities, such as monitoring, awareness campaigns, and law enforcement, especially on customary land forests. 

With few resources in the district, priority is mostly given to the forest reserves (one gazette and three proposed forest reserves).

Tobacco companies have been involved in deforestation mitigation activities, notably tree planting. 

However, the initiative has yielded few results. Field survey data show that approximately 10,980 tree seedlings were distributed to tobacco farmers by four tobacco companies in 2016. 

The quantity of tree seedlings given to each farmer is determined by the size of the farm (i.e. 130 trees seedlings per 0.5 hectares). Almost all farmers (94 percent) planted the seedlings; however, only approximately 257 seedlings survived. The farmers complained about the late distribution of the seedlings (usually distributed towards the end of the rainy season), which resulted in the low survival of the planted seedlings. 

The focus group discussion and interviews identified that the four tobacco companies do not monitor their farmers while they are planting and caring for the distributed seedlings. Furthermore, there is lack of collaboration between the tobacco companies and governmental departments. 

That is, the companies rarely share information, resulting in officers’ failure to follow up on any activities conducted by the tobacco companies.


Deforestation on Customary Land

The majority of users of wood energy are found in the customary land in rural areas, where almost 90 percent of the population lives. 

According to the literature over 50 percent of the wood energy in Malawi comes from customary forests and woodlands. Forests on customary land are managed by the rural community; therefore, proper knowledge, support, and empowerment are required, although they are imbalanced between the rural and urban areas. 

According to Sillah, the awareness level of the local population concerning conservation and rational utilisation of forest resources must be augmented to acquire the active participation and commitment of communities and individuals. 

The findings of this study, however, show a low level of awareness among those in the local population regarding forest use and management. 

The lack of resources at the district level has partly contributed to the problem. For example, the forestry budget for one year (2016–2017) for Rumphi was US$9366.87 with a monthly budget of US$780.57. 

This has resulted in a reduction in law enforcement, awareness campaigns, and monitoring, especially for customary land forests as the interviewees accounted for. 

Developing countries barely meet the financial, material, and personnel requirements for sustainable forest management. People continue to illegally extract wood from customary land forests for either commercial or non-commercial purposes.


Measures to Mitigate Pressure on Forests

Tobacco is an important cash crop in Malawi, as it accounts for 35 percent of the gross domestic product. 

The results of this study suggest the existence of a number of factors that motivate farmers to grow tobacco over other cash crops, which include: (1) the availability of loans facilitated by the tobacco companies, (2) a better price for tobacco compared to that of other cash crops, and (3) easy access to tobacco information and the availability of a market for the crop. 

These results are similar to those of the research conducted by the Centre for Agricultural Research and Development. Hall reported that most governments send out mixed messages regarding their concern for people and the environment, while actively and assiduously promoting the very economic sectors that drive deforestation. 

If the supply chains for alternative crops were developed to the level of tobacco supply chains, the prices and profitability of these crops would also grow and eclipse those of contract tobacco. This, in turn, would help to reduce the pressure on forest resources exerted by tobacco farming.

The alternative for brick burning in the study area would be an introduction of stabilised soil bricks (SSBs) and promotion of its use. 

This method involves the use of either soil alone or a mixture of soil and a minimum amount of 10 percent cement. The mixed soil and cement are compressed at high pressure and are cured under a shade. This method produces bricks using very little or no energy; therefore, this alternative would lead to reduction of deforestation.



Landsat images were used to assess forest cover changes of the study area. Forest cover in Mwazisi was reduced from 66 percent in 1991 to 45.8 percent in 2017. 

Qualitative and quantitative methods were used to assess socioeconomic conditions, forest dependency, and the underlying driving factors of deforestation. 

Households continue to depend on forest resources for (1) agriculture expansion, (2) tobacco curing, and (3) brick burning. 

The underlying factors towards these anthropogenic factors are the market system, poverty, and population growth, expensive alternative building materials, lack of awareness, lack of resources, and lack of commitment. 

Each of these underlying drivers of deforestation interacts with single or multiple proximate factors. 

Additionally, there are multiple underlying driving factors working together to underpin each proximate factor of deforestation, thereby impacting the forest cover reduction in Mwazisi. 

Synergies also exist between some underlying driving factors, such as a lack of awareness and resources. A set of economic, institutional, and demographic factors underpin agriculture expansion, tobacco growing, and brick burning in Mwazisi, Malawi. 

The following recommendations would facilitate the reduction in the deforestation rate: Providing technical support to the village heads and Community-Based Natural Resources Management Committee on forest management, and monitoring the tobacco companies operating in the district.

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