Malawi ropes in army to save its forests

February 20, 2007
BLANTYRE (AFP) -- Malawi, which has the highest deforestation rate in southern Africa, has roped in its army to save the trees, environmental officials said Monday.

The natural resources ministry over the weekend inked a deal with the Malawi army for soldiers to be deployed to protect 16 of the country's prime forest reserves and step up re-afforestation.

"After trying all these years to protect our forest reserves and failed, we have decided to seek the assistance of the army to provide deterrence to encroachment in forests and replant trees in some reserves," Energy Minister Henry Chimunthu Banda said at a signing ceremony held in Lilongwe.

The government often admits it has been fighting a losing battle to save its trees, which are hacked down for charcoal and firewood by many of its 12 million citizens who cannot afford electricity.

About 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) of forest are destroyed every year for charcoal production, the leading environmental group Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi said.

The country's tobacco industry, which uses a lot of trees for curing tobacco, the country's top export, also shares the blame for the disappearing forests. Officials quoted Defense Minister Davies Katsonga as saying: "We feel the army are better placed to protect our forests because the reserves used by the army for training purposes had all its trees still intact."

Each year Malawi plants some 30 million trees, but most of them do not survive because of poor management.