Those who have ever stayed in both Blantyre and Lilongwe will endorse my observations that Blantyre charcoal sellers are much poorer than their colleagues in Lilongwe.
Every other morning, locations in the two major cities of Malawi are chock-a-block with charcoal sellers either shouting on top of their voices, notifying any would be interested buyers that they have the ware on the offer, or silently moving around locations to be seen and called by the buyers.
One distinctive feature that comes to one’s notice is the way and manner these two groups of sellers parade their charcoal merchandise to the buyers.
In Lilongwe, one cannot become a charcoal seller if he (women are yet to exercise gender equality in this area) has no enough capital. In Blantyre all you need is your energy. You will only need to go into the mountains, fell some trees, chop them into pieces, burn them and burry it under the ground before going back home to let it cool down.
Upon return you would only need to dig the charcoal out, put them into bags and you are ready and done for the market in towns. The case is different in Lilongwe because before you venture into charcoal business you have to identify funds for purchasing a bicycle.
It therefore explains the level of wealth of the two groups of sellers. While in Blantyre the sellers will be walking carrying their stuff on their heads their colleagues in the Capital ride with a mountain charcoal bags that dwarfs them and astounds everyone they meet how they manage to control the bicycles.
The issue here though, is not to brag that I buy charcoal from economically well-off sellers since I am a resident of Lilongwe as compared to the Blantyre residents, but to demonstrate my concern over lack of action from the authorities concerned to stop the on going butchering of our environment.
Whether or not the Blantyre sellers are poorer than their Lilongwe colleagues is of little relevance, the only accepted fact though, is that they are all committing an injustice to the environment and we need to explore ways of stopping them.
When we read Government policies on environment and convincing talk from the forestry department officials armed with its forest regulations one is made to believe that the problem would be solved.
When President Bingu wa Mutharika was addressing parliament last Tuesday he sang the same song that ‘Government has intensified efforts to ensure sustainable forest management and rehabilitation of the degraded lands’.
He went further to say he personally launched the National Tree Planting season to replace the National tree planting week and in so doing they have replanted and rehabilitated the Ndirande Mountain and Viphya Plantation where 1.2 million seedlings have been raised for the purpose.
Mutharika says his government will enforce the forest regulations and also closely monitoring the progress on the planting season.
Good words you would say, but looking at what is happening in the locations you really wonder if there is any enforcement-taking place.
Last week I wanted to buy charcoal and as always I stood by the roadside closer to the place of my abode. I waited for more than half an hour but no charcoal seller turned up and it was very unusual.
Although I had my fears of what might follow if I don’t get the charcoal, I started thinking that may the forestry department had finally grown teeth. But when I descended further down to the market I was tempted to ask one of the charcoal sellers at the market, which also dampened my earlier hope that Forestry had started working.
One thing that I was told by one of the sellers at the market was that now that there is plenty of green matured maize in the gardens, that are now going together with pumpkins and cucumbers, charcoals sellers are no longer in a hurry to go into towns to sell their merchandise.
One thing that came out clearly was that it was between poverty and food shortage are the main contributing factors plunging those that engage into the business to be involved in the environmental degradation.
Government says it is rehabilitating the degraded land, but I am not really sure what happens with the land that is right now being degraded or the one that is under the threat of degradation.
The other common practice by the forestry department is by confiscating bags of charcoal from sellers which is of little impact as what happens is in two detrimental folds; on one hand the charcoal burners will go back to the forest and this time cause more damage to compensate for the confiscated stuff while on the other hand the forestry officers will find market for the confiscated charcoal and pocket the money.
Here one clear thing is that the country keeps losing kilometres and hectares of trees. And my suggestion is not to develop and depend on this reactive approach but instead devise a proactive approach by assisting the burners and sellers alike to end their poverty in a manner which is environmental friendly.