3.4 million hectares or a third of Malawi used to be covered with forests. Today, 65% of that has already been cleared, a tenth of which in the last 10 years alone. This trend is likely to continue due to a rapid population increase: Malawi has quadrupled its population in the past 40 years.
While the Mount Mulanje Forest reserve is officially protected since 1927, severe deforestation and degradation have taken place due to a lack of investment and because neighbouring communities have used it for construction wood, firewood and charcoal. This has had a direct effect on the disappearance or sharp decline of species like the Mulanje Cedar tree and the Mulanje chameleon, which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Moreover, a healthy forest is essential for the water supply of the surrounding villages, local agriculture (tea and macadamia plantations) as well as for Blantyre, the economic capital of Malawi in the South.
To reverse this trend, the reserve will be restored with 2 types of forests (montane forests and Miombo) and alternative job opportunities will be created (like employment in the tree nurseries or honey sector) combined with sustainable livelihood schemes for the thousands of families living around the reserve so that this forest can be called a proper ‘reserve’ again.
For this project there is a unique collaboration between several local players:
- MMCT (Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust) is a long-established local NGO that focuses on reducing negative impact on the mountain, with a special focus on biodiversity and exotic species. They run different livelihood, ecotourism and electricity programs and are an important player in the region as they invest time and resources into bringing different stakeholders together.
- The Forest Department has a managing and supervising role over the forest reserve and leads research on cedar restoration.
- 10 local community nurseries, owned and run by the communities, provide cedar seedling to be planted in the reserve.
Four main objectives make this project quite unique:
1. Restore 2 types of forests
The Afromontane forest with the endemic Mulanje cedar and the surrounding miombo woodland with large diversity of species,
2. Create employment and develop alternative sources of income
To lessen pressure on the forest
3. Conserve the forest and its biodiversity
The area is home to a diverse set of endemic flora and fauna such as Mulanje Cedar trees and the threatened Mulanje chameleon.
4. Support law enforcement activities
To stop deforestation
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As there are two types of vegetation, assisted natural generation (ANR) and enrichment planting will be adapted to each type. In the montane forests, our team will plant the endemic Mulanje Cedar, a species that is sensitive to disturbance and not able to generate quickly by itself. Therefore, active planting is necessary, and the seedlings are grown carefully in local community nurseries. The Miombo woodlands, on the other hand, are restored with up to 70 tree species typical to the vegetation type, such as the Uapaca and the Brachystegia trees. This dominant forest type is able to quickly regenerate from root or seed stock.
Besides ANR, agroforestry will take place as well and local communities will be trained in this which will see to a whole new generation of agroforesters who, with their income coming from fruit and or timber trees, will be more resilient to climate change.
While the above methods help to restore the reserve, it does not yet address the root cause: this forest was cleared for agriculture, illegal timber and charcoal. To properly protect the forest, alternative sources of income are needed and so, trees that allow the harvesting of fruit, mushrooms or honey are being actively planted in the area.