October 12, 2005

Erosion, forest loss add to hungry Malawi’s woes

By Ed Stoddard

CHIKWAWA, Malawi (Reuters) - Jennifer Chikapa is carting
Malawi's future away on her head.

"I'm collecting for firewood, it's the only fuel I have to
cook with," she said as she paused beneath a baking sun, a pile
of slender tree trunks perched on her head and an infant slung
on her back.

The wood will last her at least a week as she has little to
cook. Aid agencies say around 5 million Malawians -- almost
half the population of one of the world's poorest countries --
need food aid to get them through to the April maize harvest.

Women like Chikapa are inadvertently adding to their
country's long-term misery.

Forest loss and erosion could doom Malawi to perpetual food
shortages as the country's fertile soil is literally swept down
to its rivers and flushed out to sea.

"Malawi's biggest export is its top soil," says local
conservationist Khalid Hassen.

The evidence can be seen not far from where Chikapa is
carrying her wood, in the wide Shire River, which is a deep
brown in places, muddied by silt.

Many of the hills that ring the commercial capital Blantyre
are heavily farmed, despite their steep slopes. The result is
massive erosion of soil.

With around 11 million people occupying a surface area of
118,500 sq km (45,753 sq miles), Malawi is one of Africa's most
densely populated countries.

But much of the arable land has been taken up by commercial
plantations growing cash crops such as tobacco, tea and sugar.

This has left millions of subsistence farmers to till what
space they can grab.


Deforestation is playing its role as women - seldom men -
across the country collect firewood for cooking and cash.

"One of the most common ways that people cope during the
lean season is by cutting down trees to sell for charcoal,"
said Penelope Howarth, the head of the Blantyre office of the
U.N. World Food Programme.

"This has contributed to widespread flooding and erosion
and has a serious impact on long-term food security," she said.

Loss of forests contribute to erosion because tree roots
help to anchor the soil in place.

Food security is already tenuous in Malawi. A drought
devastated last spring's crop and a raging AIDS pandemic has
compounded problems, striking down peasant workers in the prime
of life.

According to the World Bank, in 2000 - the latest year for
which it obtained data - close to 26,000 sq km (10,038 sq
miles) of Malawi's surface area, or 22 percent, was forested.

But forest cover had been declining by an estimated 2.4
percent per year in the preceding decade and may have
accelerated since because of subsequent food shortages.

There have been some efforts to reverse this trend through
tree-planting programs sponsored by foreign donors but it is an
uphill battle in the face of rapid population growth.

Fragile environments cause problems across Africa from
Madagascar, where deforestation is also stripping much of the
soil, to the fringes of the vast Sahara desert in West Africa,
where the slow creep of the sands is swallowing arable land.

In Malawi, a booming market in wood carvings, which often
wind up being sold to tourists in upscale malls in Johannesburg
and Cape Town, has also helped lay waste to much of the

Malawi has been dubbed the warm heart of Africa. But its
beat is slowing as its lifeblood soil is washed away.