Use chiefs to save the environment

The past few days have seen floods hitting areas in northern and central Malawi. People have been displaced and property damaged in Rumphi, Nkhata Bay and Lilongwe districts. In Lilongwe, six people have been confirmed dead in Kaliyeka, Mchesi and Kawale townships.

While floods are inevitable, in certain cases the amount of damage caused can be mitigated. Looking at the pictures from the areas affected in Lilongwe, one notices simple mud houses constructed close to natural waterways. These waterways have been choked with debris which causes them to swell very quickly. Such structures stand no chance in heavy downpours. Lack of ground cover along river banks allows water to rush downstream and cause maximum havoc.

Where chiefs should come in

For many years now, we have been signing the ‘plant a tree’ song at every start of the rainy season but never really have programmes to ensure these trees are taken care of. We either burn them when clearing land for preparation, cut them down when they are still very young or simply let them die because we don’t nurture them. Soldiers have been deployed to Mulanje Mountain and Dzalanyama Forest reserve with mixed results. Forestry officers have had little impact due to lack of resources, inability to enforce due to staff shortages or simply because of corruption.

This is where our chiefs need to come in.

Chiefs play a vital role in villages and communities. They are said to have the trust of the people. Unfortunately this trust is what has also led to them to be used by politicians to advance selfish political agendas. Promotions seem to be based on who will spew the nastiest and harshest criticism on television against the political opposition. Along the years, the influence of chiefs is getting eroded.

Charcoal production is a major contributor to environmental degradation.

Why don’t we empower chiefs to ensure their areas are forested and that communities actually care for the trees they have planted? Chiefs should also ensure their subjects do not farm along river banks among other measures to halt environmental degradation.

Government can then engage community-based and non-profit organisations to monitor and report to a central authority on the reafforestation efforts. These statistics can then be made public so that appropriate interventions are taken by all stakeholders. Chiefs will then be rewarded and promoted for their efforts in this noble area. Communities could also be rewarded somehow although that could be politically problematic but not entirely wrong.

It’s time to stop parading our chiefs on public fora like headless chickens. They have much more important roles to play in our country!

Cover photograph by Mike Mckay.

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