/ 25 November 2011

False starts and growing pains: the fight to save the cedars

Since 1891 Mount Mulanje, the 64 000-hectare granite massif that rises to a height of 3 000m from Malawi’s southern plains, has been the darling of British botanists, administrators and adventurers, finding its way into popular literature in the form of Laurens Van Der Post’s Venture into the Interior, and inspiring H Rider Haggard’s People of the Mists.

After democratisation in 1994, Mulanje has been something of a donor darling, attracting funds from the World Bank, USAid, Britain’s Department for International Development, Oxfam, and many more. Much of this is thanks to a single tree species. Of course, the funding proposals rightly underscore the fact that the massif gives rise to the nine rivers that water plains on which nearly a million people live and farm.

There is also concern for the rapidly vanishing miombo woodlands at the base of the mountain, the endemic birds, ungulates and the as yet unnamed invertebrates. But towering above everything in the area’s conservation history, just as it does above its competitors in the mountains forested ravines, is the Mulanje cedar.

David Nangoma, an ecologist with the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust (MMCT), shrugs a little wearily when we state our interest in the tree’s plight. “Well, we do a lot of other work — we make firebreaks, eradicate aliens and run between the villages on conservation awareness drives. But it is the cedar everyone wants to know about at the moment, so we find ourselves focusing a lot on that,” he says. It has been this way for years.

I tell Nangoma that I first visited Mulanje in 2000 and observed local cedar bearers descending from the escarpment with six-metre baulks on their heads. My guide had tut-tutted and said that the greed of a few local villagers was destroying the last stands of mkunguza, the national tree.

I explain that the guide had said this while passing under the cable of an old mechanised pulley system built by the Nyasaland Timber and Trading Company in the 1950s to enable the monthly delivery of thou- sands of cubic metres of Mulanje cedar to the colonial public works department. I mean to indicate that my interest is at least post-colonial.

“It’s a long story,” says Nangoma and, though he’s tired from chasing after illegal eucalyptus loggers three nights in a row, he agrees to recount what he knows. The rest, he says, is out there — in project proposals, scientific papers and books. Van Der post’s book about his travels to Mulanje stands out.

In 1951 the British government sent the adventurer to assess the agricultural potential of Malawi’s mountainous areas. Even then he could write about “a world of cedars in retreat, a world of unique and irreplaceable living trees, fighting a desperate rearguard action against fire and rapacious human beings”. The book contains a critique of colonial conservation that is as piercing as any being written today.

Van Der post meets British foresters who are possessive of the mountain and its cedar. one in particular, named Dicky Vance, leaves the writer with “the disconcerting feeling that my mere presence there was an intrusion in someone’s most private and intimate world”. Vance’s subsequent death while attempting to cross the swollen Ruo River hardly comes as a surprise because Van Der post has all along been structuring a parable about the danger inherent in loving “a prehistoric world”, by which he means an African mountain and its signature flora which, “in their ancient resentment and deep disdain of men and their mission, stood still without even a rustle or a whisper”.

Today, Dicky Vances abound. In April 2008, for example, an American environmental economist called Joy Hecht climbed Mulanje and wrote about the experience for National Geographic Africa. Her party, which included Julian Bayliss, the British ecologist who in the same year “discovered” 7 000 hectares of virgin rainforest in northern Mozambique (an experience he later described as being “a modern version of the David Livingstone-type experience; those Victorian expeditions”), encountered illegal loggers cutting live cedar.

“Julian was furious,” wrote Hecht. “Cutting live cedar is always illegal; at that time even cutting dead cedar was illegal. Our porter tried to control him, to keep him from blaming the workers. And to warn them that they had saws, and that violence wasn’t impossible. Finally, Julian retreated, pale with rage.”

An anthropologist looking to expand Bayliss’s adoptive devotion to Mulanje and its trees into a generality about Malawi’s Euro-Africans would find ample evidence in the acknowledgments pages of Jim Chapman’s fantastic 1995 monograph about the Mulanje Cedar, in which he thanks a litany of Temples, Wyatt-Smiths, Royles, Sargents and Hardcastles, but only one Kankwhende. Anglo-Malawians do reserve special affection for Mulanje and its tree, and it is clear from the earliest accounts of the place that the colonials felt compelled to conserve the cedar, if only because it was “equal to the finest yellow pine” (Alexander Whyte, 1891), and “a valuable supply of timber if properly preserved and replanted” (Lieutenant Sclater, 1893).

By 1920 the chief forest officer had ordered “the hoeing and burning of fire lines round the clumps of (Mulanje cedar) forest”, as ravine-scaling fires from the increasingly populated plains were then considered the greatest threat to the cedar’s existence. For the next 90 years similar fire management tactics were employed, alongside periodic replantings and bans on logging, and yet cedar numbers continued to fall to the point at which, today, David Newton of conservation organisation. Traffic says the tree “probably qualifies for the critically endangered category of the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list, which includes the most threatened species on earth.”

What went wrong?
“Democratisation happened in the mid-1990s and before we as Malawians grasped what our responsibilities were as democratic citizens are, there has been a tendency to believe that it represents a free for all,” says Nangoma. He says this is an interpretation encouraged by politicians. “For example, you will have noticed there are population pressures in the region, and as a result we have problems of encroachment into the reserve. Malawians go to the polls every five years, but two years prior to elections nobody talks about evictions because it’s too political.

“As I speak to you now two years before the next election, the forestry department is asking us to open the mountain for a Mulanje cedar cutting season, yet they haven’t even assessed how much stock is avail- able,” he says. Nangoma is quick to point out, however, that the would-be conservationists of the Mulanje cedar over the years must claim their share of malpractice. “For the past 10 years a great deal of the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust’s effort has been spent on eradicating Mexican pine from the mountain, which was introduced to the slopes as a ‘nest crop’ for Mulanje cedar decades ago. When the administrators in those days saw that the pine, which is also a useful timber tree, grew faster than the cedar, they let it go and it was soon dominating the mountain.”

The introduction by foresters of alien tree species resulted in a devastating outbreak of the sap sucking cypress aphid in the 1990s, which is estimated to have wiped out 10 000 cedars. The MMCT has been struggling to staunch the losses since it was founded in 2000 but Nangoma admits, “We don’t know enough about the tree’s silviculture.” It is likely, in fact, that attempts to manage the cedar based on insufficient knowledge have actually harmed its chances of survival.

In the mid-1990s South African botanists Anton Pauw and Peter Linderer spent weeks tramping around the mountain and established that there were in fact two distinct forms of Widdringtonia (the name of a small plant genus that includes both the Mulanje cedar and the even rarer Clanwilliam cedar) on the mountain — Widdringtonia whytei, which is the near-extinct Mulanje Cedar, and Widdringtonia nodiflora, a far shrubbier plant that is widespread in Southern Africa. Before this discovery, botanists and conservationists had simply assumed that the Mulanje cedar was a strapping variant of Widdringtonia nodiflora. “This is problematic,” says Pauw, “because conservation initiatives are usually drawn to a ‘species’, whereas interesting variants receive little attention.”

Believing that the two trees were one, it is likely that conservationists who gathered seeds over the decades and sent them all over the world for trials, collected the cones of the shrubby nodiflora, which can easily be plucked. “To get to the cones of the whytei, which can grow to 40m and often doesn’t have a single branch until a height of 20m, I had to fire a thin line into the canopy and climb. This probably explains why one hears nothing about those international trials, and why forests of Widdringtonia nodiflora were established in parts of Malawi when the intention was to establish whytei,” says Pauw. An even poorer understanding of the Mulanje cedar’s ecology (the way it relates to its surroundings, regenerates and so forth) is possibly responsible for even bitterer ironies.

According to University of Cape Town-based botanist Ed February, the Mulanje cedar doesn’t coppice after fire, and since fire frequently burns the scrublands of the Mulanje plateau, the cedars are only found growing in afromontane forests in Mount Mulanje’s protected clefts. However, the cedar can’t regenerate in forest either — it’s a gymnosperm, unable to compete successfully with angiosperms in the absence of direct sunlight. “What kind of survival strategy is that for a plant, to grow exactly where it can’t reproduce?” asks February in disbelief.

Pauw’s theory, with which February agrees, is that the Mulanje Cedar’s thick and spongy bark enables it to survive mild fires in which the tree species around it would perish. In a newly cleared area Mulanje cedar would then be able to re- establish itself, so long as the fire interval was a long one. Yet if this theory is correct then it follows — and here’s where the irony comes in — that foresters who for more than 90 years thought they were expending their sweat on burning firebreaks to protect the cedar, were in fact locking it into an environment in which it could not regenerate, in effect neutering it. This would explain why most of the remaining cedars in Mount Mulanje’s forests are either moribund or dead.

In the face of ongoing illegal logging the MMCT hopes that a recently despatched funding application to the Darwin Initiative, which would enable it to pay for Widdringtonia experts such as February to develop management processes that are less scatter-shot, will succeed. If it doesn’t, and appropriate research-based management practices are not found, the mountain Van Der post described as ”a terrific, a wizard, a grand place”, will be without its signature tree in a few years.

The autopsy will be a gory one of extinction by castration, burning, sawing, ring-barking, sucking of sap and ignorance, and the suspect list will be a mob of men in colonial khaki or almost nothing at all, modern suits, panda hats, and perhaps also those people identified by Van Der post, whose love, in the words of his fellow South African writer JM Coetzee, “has consistently been directed towards the land, that is, towards what is least likely to respond to love: mountains and deserts, birds and animals and flowers.”

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