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Photo Credit: Jonas Gratzer/Freelance Photographer

Healing Malawi’s Environment Through Natural Regeneration

By Kelvin Tembo

MALAWI – Before 2015, farming used to be a profitable business for Josephine Nyika, a farmer from Kajikhomere village in the area of T/A Mzikubola in Mzimba. Blessed with thick forests that guaranteed normal rains, Nyika routinely clear every shrub that has regenerated into her garden in preparation for making ridges for planting.

However, in 2012 things started getting tough. Mzimba started experiencing tricky rains due to the depletion of forests as a result of human population growth. Also, many people living in Mzimba saw the forests as their source of income. They ventured into charcoal burning – an activity that contributed to the devouring of forests that were once the pride of the area. Likewise, majority of people in the area depended on farming and with good rains and high yields guaranteed, they hungered for more. They started opening more new big fields which meant trees have to be cut to pave way for cultivation.

“With these human activities many trees were depleted and the depletion of trees contributed to climate change which resulted in tricky rains characterised by prolonged dry spells almost each and every rainy season,” Nyika told Rural Reporters.

“With droughts, our yields went down. For example, in 2014 I did not harvest much as I used to. At some point, we experienced a drought which resulted in the wilting of most of my crops, and the crops failed to pick up when the drought was over.”

Studies show that forests have a direct impact on rain. As forests reduce in size they emit less water vapor which reduces rainfall leading to lower levels of water and other waterways. Deforestation also increases the rate of evaporation from water bodies already depleted by lack of rain.

With climate change knocking on the door, increasing deforestation and droughts, the future looked very dark and scary for Nyika and residents of her area. However, Find Your Feet Malawi, a local non-governmental organisation focused on agriculture, agri business and value chains, came up with a sustainable and innovative technology that would be the answer to their worries.

Through the Sustainable Agriculture Lead Farmer Project (SALFP) implemented in the northern districts of Mzimba and Nkhata Bay with financial support from Development Fund of Norway, Find Your Feet introduced the “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration” (FMNR) initiative in Kazomba Extension Planning Area where Nyika’s area falls under.

The organisation describes farmer-managed natural regeneration as a quick, low cost, sustainable and easy-to-replicate technique to restore and improve agricultural, forested and pasture lands. The technique encourages the systematic re-growth of existing trees and shrubs from tree stumps, roots and seeds.

Drawing from decades of research, FMNR uses farming principles designed to mimic nature. To build healthy soils and a thriving agro-ecosystems, this approach incorporates a range of practices like agroforestry and well-managed grazing. Benefits of these practices include richer soil, healthier water systems, increased biodiversity, climate change resilience and stronger farming communities.

FMNR adapts centuries-old methods of woodland management, called coppicing and pollarding to produce continuous tree growth without the need for frequent and costly replanting.

All Nyika and residents of her area had to do was learning to do business unusual. While land clearing for cultivation meant removing all weeds and shrubs, this time around they were supposed to leave some.

“We were taught to be leaving some shrubs that have grown into our fields so that they grow into bigger trees as a way of restoring the trees which were depleted, and we followed that as it did not require much effort” Nyika said.

“Actually, it is very easy to explain how FMNR works. Even more, you will see that it is not that hard at all to bring it into practices either. First of all, you need to allow the trees to grow. Often the forest is already available, but it is hidden underground. We simply need to give it time to establish itself,” Nyika explained.

“Also, in order to get healthy, well growing and fine shaped trees, the pruning and thinning of the regrowth needs to happen in a carefully selective ways. Correct pruning stimulates rapid growth and results in taller, straighter, more useful tree trunks.”

When Find Your Feet brought the initiative to Mzimba, Nyika was more than happy to practice this new initiative and she became one of the Lead Farmers in promoting this technology.

“With trees being depleted and the challenges we were facing, I thought of the future and that is the reason I decided to practice FMNR so that we restore the trees for the better future of our children,” she said.

Her decision is however paying off. While droughts continue affecting her area, she is less concerned as FMNR is helping her harvest more despite the droughts.

“Since I started practicing FMNR I have seen more positives. The trees that have regenerated in my garden helps in keeping moisture such that despite continued occurrences of droughts, my field is less affected. Also, the leaves from the trees help in fixing the soil,” she said.

Sain Mskambo Project Officer for Find Your Feet said they decided to promote the practice of FMNR as part of natural resource management and conservation.

“Farmer management natural regeneration is one of the best ways to conserve natural resources and allow trees to grow. Trees tend to grow fast since they are already established and adapted to their environment,” Mskambo said.

But can this technology be a sustainable way of restoring the depleted forest cover?

The Malawi Government estimates that the country’s 8.4 million acres of predominantly natural forests are being depleted at a rate of 2.6 percent annually.

In Mzimba alone, the district is facing high deforestation rates estimated at 10-40 percent according to Forest Assistant Arden Ngoma. Ngoma said the rate of deforestation is growing fast as compared to past years where the rate was constant.

“Population growth is at the centre of this increase in deforestation rate,” Ngoma said. “Due to population growth there is high demand for infrastructure development, charcoal demand has gone up and agriculture expansion is going up, all these put forests at risk hence the increase in deforestation.”

But the country is not just staying idle. Efforts are there to restore forest cover with the tree planting exercise carried out each and every year leading the efforts.

However, this exercise has its own challenges in as far as the survival rate of the planted trees is concerned. Of all the trees planted each and every year, about 40 percent of the trees die reports the Forestry Directorate.

Dry spells during trees planting time that results into many trees being planted late, animal grazing as well as wrong species matching contributes to these trees dying.

And that is where natural regeneration beat tree planting efforts. Find Your Feet’s’ Mskambo is of the view that FMNR and tree planting should be complementing each other for better results.

“Farmer managed natural regeneration should be promoted alongside reafforestation programs like tree planting so that communities benefit from both interventions in the short, medium and long term,” Mskambo said.

“We encourage natural regeneration as we believe this can complement the tree planting efforts. Natural trees grow naturally and are already adapted to the environment while exotic trees sometimes end up dying due to wrong species matching,” he said.

To achieve total FMNR results Mskambo said there is a need for individual and community engagement. He says this makes sense since the people living close to the land are also the first to benefit from it.

“One way to promote farmer management natural regeneration is to allow value addition, for example, engaging communities in apiculture,” he said.

RuralReporters.com is a news platform with in-depth coverage of under-reported issues in rural communities in Nigeria and across Africa. We report on Agriculture, Health, Women and generally on Rural Development. To pitch a story idea or submit a report, please email: editor@ruralreporters.com

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