Monday, June 21, 2010

An African Environmental Journey

Lake Malawi and the mighty Shire River are under threat from deforestion. This image is taken from Khandi beach

This is the first post of an African Odyssey. I am in Malawi, getting ready to drive through Zambia, Botswana, maybe Namibia and on to South Africa. My big diesel truck,called the Hog, a Toyota Landcruiser, will be our vehicle for the journey. It is well tuned, but will still be pumping out noxious greenhouse gases like CO2 and CO, but sadly without an electric 4x4 vehicle, it is our best way to get around in the remote areas of southern Africa. When a plug-in electric 4x4 that can travel at least 200 Miles is available, I will be getting one. Until then, I will rely on the Hog.

Along the way we will be meeting up with people who are making a difference in their communities and countries by starting to reverse some of the massive deforestation that is happening here. We will try to make up for all those noxious Hog exhaust fumes by planting some trees that will grow large and strong for many years to come.

Right now I am in Blantyre, Malawi. Outside it is wet and cold and rainy, with some patches of scattered sunlight just starting to break through. Blantyre sits nestled between a group of granite mountains. Until twenty years ago, these mountains were home to huge forests that supplied water to Malawi's biggest city all year. Streams, covered with cycads and fern-shaded mosses cascaded all around the town. Deep in the forests leopards and hyaena hunted for their food among the populations of small forest deer and warthogs. The forests are almost gone now, felled for a burgeoning population and humanity's insatiable desire for food and energy. They have not been replanted, and now most of the peaks are laid bare, covered with withered grass and mud and ringed by squalid wet townships and shacks that are prone to being flooded out by rains that are not retained by the roots of the old forest giants.

But there are possibilities here, chances at an alternative future. Plans are afoot to replant many of the peaks and hills with much of the natural forest they have lost. Rafiq Hajat, the executive director of the Blantyre-based Institute for Policy Interaction, is putting to gether a plan that links government, civil society, AIDS assistance groups, international Non-Government Orgiansations (NGOs) and the people of Malawi to start a reforestion campaign using indigenous trees.

As we sat on the airplane together on my way back to Malawi, he outlined a clear plan that seens local people creating rare tree-oil businesses from the newly planted forests, and in turn, benefitting from the increased rainfall and slope stabilisation systems that the trees will bring. Their crop yields will increase, their income from the oil will provide an entry into Malawi's cash economy, and the renewed access to fresh water will increase the health of the population.

Through this convergence of goals and needs among the many stakeholders, it is possible to rebuild and regenerate at least some of the forests Malawi has lost. Hajat and donor contries (Malawi gets 38% of its annual budget from the international community) see tree planting as an investment in the future of Malawi. Malawi gets most of it's power from hydroelectric dams on the Shire River. These dams are badly affected by deforestion as the silt and old forest materials from deforested hillsides are washed into the Shire and gum-up the turbines. The country experiences electrical blackouts daily, and are a major drain on it's development and a hindrance to economic activity and investment.

Malawi is a Microcosm of the rest of the world and it's large population and small land area means everything that is happening to the trees and forests around the world are happening here more quickly, severely and with disatrous consequences. It is ironic that countries like Canada and the United States, which are currently in the process of cutting down their own old-growth forests, have been so active in trying to get Malawians to replant theirs.

More updates from the road will be forthcoming.

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