Raising the Dust Chapter Reflections

Chapter Ten: The State of the Biosphere ‒ Part V

In my previous Raising the Dust article, I explored some of the tensions that arose for me as an ‘inside-outsider’ conducting ethnographic research on a mountainside in the South of Malawi.  I described the impacts of mining, not only the mountain, but on myself as a researcher. As noted, these impacts are an inevitable part of naturalistic research as we move from making our observations in the field to becoming part of it. In addition to being affected by the rare earth mining explorations that were taking place at the time of fieldwork, from the day I arrived in Mulanje, I noticed the impacts of the loss of forest cover due to the legal and illegal forestry activities that had long been taking place. I noticed the ongoing deforestation due to the charcoal burning activities and the cutting down of trees for household and commercial fuel.

forrest fires

Fire spreading across the slopes of Mount Mulanje, Malawi.
Often fires are set illegally by poachers to bring out the wildlife.

The state of the forest

The protection of trees and other woodland species is vital to the practice of traditional medicine. Kalipeni and Feder (1999)[i] point out that Malawi has experienced some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world since colonial times. This has inevitably impacted on local conditions. The Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust is responsible for overseeing these issues and has collected data which reflects some of the changes described in my interviews. The data highlights the challenges of managing protected areas in regions where there is resource conflict and competing needs and values. When analysing my data, I referred to the 5 Year Management Plan: 2001-2005 for Mulanje Mountain and Michesi Forest Reserve (Environment & Development Group, 2000)[ii] which prioritised the implementation of community based programmes aimed at boosting forest productivity. The document focused on enhancing incomes and improving the living standards and thus promoting a number of income generating activities including; timber utilisation, charcoal manufacture, furniture making, ecotourism, food preservation, mushroom and fruit harvesting, commercial livestock production, fish farming, horticulture and hydro-electric power generation. Traditional medicine harvesting was not included as a potential income generating activity in this plan.

Five years later, a draft of the 5 Year Management Plan: 2005-2009[iii] for the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve identified a number of ongoing issues. Poor literacy in communities surrounding the reserve had emerged as a significant issue, leading the Environment & Development Group to conclude that people’s understanding of local conservation issues was “very little” (2004: viii). The authors add that the other significant challenge facing local communities was the ongoing “scourge of HIV/AIDS” (Environment & Development Group, 2004: xiii). The same draft plan identifies high population growth and deforestation as additional problems but only refers to traditional medicine to highlight the need for increased protection of resources, stating that traditional harvesting rates and methods are “probably not sustainable” (2004:11).

While traditional medicine has been recognised as a potentially valuable non-timber forest product, it tends to be recorded under “Forestry Department Revenue”, as “NO DATA” (Hecht, 2006:17)[iv] and there is no value added amount given for the Mulanje/Phalombe area either. The forest resource value of traditional medicine is thus regarded as “Missing Data” and reported by the statement that:

We have no data on several NFTPs of interest; mushrooms, grazing, wild honey, gathered fruits, medicinal plants, and hunting. Of these, medicinal plants may be of great economic interest, because they are exported to South Africa, Mozambique and other countries in the region. (Hecht, 2006:16)

Darko argues that deforestation and the “gross lack of respect for the environment” (2009:72[v]), in particular the forest, is one of the greatest threats to the practice of traditional medicine. This is because when forests are lost, we lose the ethnomedical knowledge they hold, a recurring loss of an unknown ‒ or not yet known ‒ knowledge (Norsica and Borgognini-Tarli, 2006)[vi]. Additionally, since herbal medicines are derived mostly from plants grown in the forest, the “destruction of these plants invariably means the destruction of the sources of healing” (Darko 2009:72). Reflecting on these issues, I wrote in my fieldwork that “without the (indigenous) medicine trees, traditional healers cannot practice. No trees, no traditional medicine” (Fieldwork Diary, 13 July 2012). Elaborating further, I noted that my interview participants, through their daily healing practices, have developed:

the capacity to act as facilitators, raising awareness of the importance of conserving the forest and growing local plants. In return for this they are asking the forest department and other stakeholders to help them establish nurseries and woodlots. They are also seeking assistance to set up programs for the commercial production of traditional medicines for sale both locally and further afield. They would also like to work with the National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens[vii] and have previously sent out proposals, but have not yet received a response.

Local communities contribute significantly to the protection of forest environments (Anyinam, 1995[viii]; Norsica and Borgognini-Tarli, 2006) and Nangoma (2010)[ix] states that conservation efforts will fail if they do not take this knowledge into account. Nangoma insists that people living around the Mulanje and Michesi forest reserves must therefore derive “tangible benefits from the reserve if they are to assist with management.”[x] Since ecological destruction and poverty are usually inextricably linked, conservation efforts must always address “the subsistence needs of people if projects are to be successful” (Diemont and Martin, 2009:254)[xi].


Community-based forest management

So far community based forest approaches have failed to improve the health of Mulanje’s forests (Wisborg and Jumbe, 2010)[xii] and a significant percentage of the Mountain’s tropical forest cover, including important endemic species and other significant indigenous vegetation, is under threat or has been lost. Revegetation programs to save the endemic Mulanje cedar have been unsuccessful[xiii] and the species remains at critical risk. Additionally, as the overall demand for timber exceeds supply, the forests become areas of conflict, escalating to the point where forest managers have requested to be armed when they enter trouble spots. Understanding these conflicts, and monitoring the driving forces behind the loss of plant resources, can provide us with “a unique window to begin modeling the loss of resources for traditional medicine and establishing mechanisms for resource preservation” (Buenz, 2005:119)[xiv].

Sensing these threats as an outsider ‒ with a growing attachment to the mountain ‒ I felt the tensions personally. The persistent chopping sounds coming from the forests and surrounds were a constant reminder of the demand for forest fuel. The hacking sounds dominate the naturally recognizable sounds of the forest and whilst watching a group of children gathering fuel from the forest behind the guesthouse one day, I looked up at the mountain, wondering:

Will the new generation value the forest once more? Will they replant it or will this deforestation continue until it is all gone and with it the medicine, the fruits, the monkeys, the wildflowers, the geckos, the snakes and the butterflies? (Fieldwork Diary, 04 July 2012)

The constant chopping sounds emanating from the surrounding area echoed the legal and illegal activities of the timber harvesters. When I first arrived in Mulanje I reacted to these hacking sounds with a sense of despair, however, as I began to observe the activities of the timber harvesters with more attention, my understanding of the issues deepened and I noted that:

Yesterday when I came down the hill, there was a ferocious “hack attack” along the side of the road, which is surprising because there are graves alongside the road and as far as I know, cutting trees around a gravesite is taboo. Maybe it is because the graves are the graves of prisoners? Not sure, but once again I could not understand this ferocious hack attack and what looked like the wanton felling of living trees, mostly mango trees. Once again I discovered that the hacking was for a purpose, it was not wanton at all. (Fieldwork Diary, 11 July 2012)

In this case, the timber was being used to make stepladders and scaffolding for the construction of the new labour ward at the Mulanje District Hospital. Although the ladders were utility items, I noticed that they had been skilfully hand crafted to suit their purpose.

Nevertheless, the demand for forest fuel from Mulanje Mountain is obvious and relentless. A procession of women with heavy loads of timber on their heads continuously descends all sides of the mountain. In addition to their child caring and agricultural work, it is not uncommon for women to dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to collecting the fuel wood used to provide the energy for their daily activities and to generate an income. On one occasion I counted ten women coming down the hill in the half hour it took me to walk up the hill. Each woman was carrying at least 30 kilograms of timber on her head. By this conservative estimate, more than 300 kilograms of timber descended the hill in that half hour. I guessed that, at these rates, thousands of kilograms of timber were being carried out of the forests and woodland areas each month. The sustainable timber yield is estimated to be 26,000 per annum, but even in 2005, the demand for fuel from the Mulanje Mountain forests was 145,000 cubic metres (Hecht, 2006) and my fieldwork showed that there is nothing to indicate that this is in decline.

In addition to the threatening loss of indigenous tree species, the health of the women carrying the heavy head loads is also at risk. The, mostly young women who collect the timber, have a way of speed walking while carrying their heavy loads. They move quickly and their hips sway from side to side. It was not clear to me if they were running with such speed and dexterity to; avoid being apprehended, keep their head loads balanced, or reach their destinations more quickly, thereby limiting the pain induced by carrying the heavy loads. The intense physical impact on their backs and necks is nevertheless evident in the profuse perspiration running down their bodies and in the noticeably strained expressions on many of their young faces.

Children begin collecting firewood from the forests from an early age and as they get older, the weight of their head loads increases gradually. Walking partway up the mountain one day I discovered just how heavy the loads are. Two young girls had been piling timber up along the side of the path. On the way down, they had made significant progress, and one of the girls had tied her bundle together in readiness for it to be to be placed on her head. I’d been wondering how heavy the bundles were so I asked the young girl if I could try lifting it. Later I noted that:

I could get it no further than about 6cms off the ground. The girls looked about 16 years old and they were going to lift these heavy loads and carry them down the mountain path, on their heads, when I couldn’t even lift the corner off the ground. (Fieldwork Diary, 20 June 2012)

Our guesthouse also provided an ideal location to observe fuel wood gathering activities and one morning I watched a procession of children coming out of the forest. I started counting them; one, two, three, four, five, six … . They looked to be between four and twelve, each carrying a substantial head load relative to their size ‒ at least their body weight. I discretely,

‘inspected’ each pile and true to what they had been instructed, they were all carrying dead wood on top of their heads. Each of the children greeted me enthusiastically, out of politeness or to placate my suspicion at their cargos, I’m not sure? (Fieldwork Diary, 29 June 2012)

Technically the removal of dead wood from the forest is allowed, providing the person has a permit issued by a forestry officer. Locals are required to pay a fee for the timber they collect but an informant explained to me that the fee either does not get collected or it’s often pocketed for personal use by the official collecting it. Additionally, not all the supposedly ‘dead-wood’ coming down the mountain is dead. On closer inspection, some apparently ‘dead’ branches were sprouting green shoots. In general, though, people seemed to comply with the guidelines.

Meanwhile, profit incentives for extracting timber from the forests are high. Stakeholders don’t have the capacity to prevent this illegal forest harvesting, or respond to these activities when they occur and one day whilst travelling to Blantyre with a stakeholder, he received a call from a police officer reporting that a local tea estate manager had informed them that one of their trailers had been used to collect timber illegally. The tea estate manager had apologised to the police for the illegal activity, reassuring them that the culprits would be ‘dealt with’ so the stakeholder instructed the police to deliver the confiscated timber to the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust ‒ for distribution to the community.[xv] He advised the police officer that, since the tea estate workers had been reprimanded, the matter should go no further. Forest co-management had succeeded here in that their activities were reported, but I wondered what incentives there were for the employees to stop their actions. Furthermore, what’s the community’s capacity to respond to this illegal activity? The same stakeholder described an excursion into neighbouring Tanzania. He said the environment was in noticeably better health across the border where the connection between the health of the environment and the health of the population is already recognised. Strangeland, Dhillion and Reksten (2008)[xvi] point out that Tanzania is “one of those countries that has been championing TM and its practice, and in fact may be an example of good practice”. The stakeholder suggested that the relative health of the environment across the border was partly due to the communal principles that guide community based policy forest frameworks in Tanzania, where programs like Tree Seed, protect resources. The stakeholder compared Tanzania’s success with the local situation, where the forests are seen to be owned exclusively by the government. He said most people living around the Mountain just “sneak into the forest and take what they believe to be government owned resource for their own use” and that by contrast, in Tanzania:

there is evidence everywhere of the communal ownership and care of resources. There are tree nurseries ‘everywhere, all over’. They can be seen alongside the roads and in public places. He said that sure, community co-management of forest resource has been a policy for a long time in Mulanje, but in Tanzania it is a practice as well. (Fieldwork Diary, 02 July 2012)

It’s obvious that most local people rely on forest fuels for their energy needs but, as Hecht (2006) points out, the dire ecological predictions for Mulanje Mountain have not eventuated as expected. Despite significant environmental pressures, people seem to have found ways of surviving with the knowledge and resources they have, and they also change their practices accordingly. For instance, there has been a diversification away from dependence on firewood collected from the forest, and much of the fuel used in households is now taken from brush and dead wood (Hecht, 2006). Households also rely on crop residues when wood is unavailable, and they change to foods needing less cooking when energy supplies are low.


The charcoal burners

While some of the timber collected from the forests is used to meet local household energy needs, a considerable amount is used to manufacture charcoal to supply the peri-urban areas. Locally, there is a preference to use indigenous hardwood timbers for making this charcoal, which is regarded as a “clean” fuel. A charcoal merchant explained that it is “clean” because it is used in the peri-urban areas, supplying the high demand for smokeless cooking fuel. When I asked him, “but how does that make it a ‘clean’ when it still needs to be burned first?” he answered, “yes, but not in the cities, somewhere else” (Fieldwork diary, 27 June 2012). In the case of the Mulanje charcoal manufacturers, this ‘somewhere else’ is their homes and villages.

The first night I stayed in Nessa village the constant sound of coughing echoed through the village and I assumed that the villagers were suffering from tuberculosis. The next day I discussed my concerns with the Peace Corps volunteer I was staying with and he suggested that the constant coughing was more likely to be caused by the inhalation of smoke in poorly ventilated areas. He explained that many villagers inhale the equivalent of 3 packets of cigarettes a day.[xvii] The burden of disease is borne disproportionately by people living in the villages, yet the resources to address these issues and prevent disease are nevertheless lacking.

One of my interview participants had said that the charcoal burners’ unsustainable practices were to blame for the destruction of the forest. He said that they “just cut a tree” but they “don’t know that this tree, we are cutting, is important to our friends. It is something to cure such, such a disease”. According to the participant, the charcoal burners “don’t know. They do just cut them, without realising, and that is what is affecting us most”. He added, “we can try to preserve, but others can go there, and destroy what we preserved”. Speaking about the potential for change, he continued with “many can change” but the state of the forest will only improve “little by little”. Nevertheless, he was optimistic about the future because some people are slowly responding to local conservation issues. He said: “sometimes it happens that you can teach two or three people, and if you bring an exercise, you see that one is failing to follow. But up to now others have realised that these methods will help us”. He explained that people were responding to the conservation messages being promoted by local traditional healers and that “many are [now] following those methods”. He said that some people were even realising “that yah, this medicine has an important role to the community, to a nation, even abroad”.

The link between traditional medicine and the protection of forest resources is obvious. Without the forest there is an obvious loss of the resources used in indigenous medicine. There is also the loss of knowledge that is passed down through the generations, thereby putting indigenous medical outlooks at risk ‒ as well as the traditional healers themselves. The linking of human and ecological health, including the health of our forests and urban tree coverage is not foreign; we cannot be healthy if we destroy our natural environment, including our trees.

As a tree lover and holistic practitioner, my urban forest is my medicine chest, my spiritual home, my shelter from the sun, my air filter, my rainmaker, my place of reflection, my privacy screen and my sometime my source of food source. It’s also habitat for the many creatures that inhabit my garden and I have spent my life wondering how will we live when the trees are gone? This is not a rhetorical question; it’s a real life issues for all of us.

This article explores the last of my data analysis and in next month’s article I will begin reflecting back on some of these themes, concepts and ideas that underpinned my analysis, integrating my new learning into my research. In the meantime, if you’d like further information about any aspect of my research, please email me at hippygolucky@hotmail.com

Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605 


[i] Kalipeni, E., & Feder, D. (1999). A Political Ecology Perspective on Environmental Change in Malawi with the Blantyre Fuelwood Project Area as a Case Study. Politics and the Life Sciences, 18(1), 37-54.

[ii] Environment & Development Group. (2000). Mulanje Mountain and Michesi Forest Reserves, Malawi. Five Year Management Plan: 2001-2005. Oxford: Environment & Development Group.

[iii] Environment & Development Group. (2004). Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve, Malawi. Five Year Management Plan: 2004-2009. Oxford: Environment & Development Group.

[iv] Hecht, J. (2006). Valuing the Resources of Mulanje Mountain. Community Partnerships for Sustainable Resource Management Compass ll, Occassional Paper no 14. Blantyre: Development Alternatives Inc.

[v] Darko, I. (2009). Ghanian Indigenous Health Practices: The Use of Herbs. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Toronto, Toronto.

[vi] Norsica, I. and Borgogini-Tarli, S. (2006). Ethnobotanical reputation of plant species from two forests of Madagascar: A preliminary investigation. South African Journal of Botany, 72, 656-660.

[vii] The National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens is in Zomba

[viii] Anyinam, C. (1995). Ecology and Ethnomedicine: Exploring Links Between Current Environmental Crises and Indigenous Medical Practices. Social Sciences and Medicine, 40(3), 321-329.

[ix] Nangoma, David (2010) Program Officer, Biodiversity Research and Monitoring. Mount Mulanje. Retrieved from http://www.mountmulanje.org.mw/biodiversity.htm

[x] This information was retrieved from http://www.mountmulanje.org.mw/visit.htm

[xi] Diemont, S., & Martin, J. (2009). Lacandon Maya ecosystem management: sustainable design for subsistence    and environment restoration. Ecological Applications, 19(1), 254-266

[xii] Wisborg, P., & Jumbe, C. (2010). Mulanje Mountain Biodiversity Conservation Project. Mid- term Review for the Norwegian Government. Norway: Norad. Noagric report No. 57.

[xiii] This information was learned through discussions with a local stakeholder who has a personal interest in the conservation of the endemic species.

[xiv] Buenz, E. J. (2005). Country development does not presuppose the loss of forest resources for traditional medicine use. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 100, 188-123.

[xv] Wisborg and Jumbe (2010) argue that political influences often frustrate attempts to deter illegal extraction.

[xvi] Strangeland, T., Dhillion. S., & Reksten, H. (2008). Recognition and development of traditional medicine in Tanzania. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 117, 290-299.

[xvii] He did not say what he based his quantification of 3 packets of cigarettes a day on.