/ 25 November 2011

To kill an African giant

“There,” whispered Fael, our guide. We froze. Our eyes bulged. Twenty metres away to the right of our faint path lay a shelf of rock projecting into the air towards some nearby woods. Just beyond the grey granite boulder was the head of a panda, facing away. No mistaking the black ears, the grubby white teddy bear curvature of its head. It was surveying the valley, moving its head idly from side to side.

Fael cleared his throat and the panda turned and looked at us before dropping from view. Momentarily the ravine was filled with the sound of wooden planks clashing, of saws quivering and feet drumming away. one man took off across the river, a little arthritically, followed by an athletic youth swinging a panga. The man in the panda hat, like a Minotaur for the new Chinese century, beat it down the river course.

Fortunately, all were still within earshot when Fael began shouting reassurances in Chichewa, advancing slowly but surely across the scrubland with one palm raised. The men walked warily back to their workplace, a flat area next to the river littered with rough-hewn planks of cedar. We made a deal, a few thousand Malawi kwacha for a conversation, and sat down among the woodchips.

The men are Luxon, Porfera, and Jackson. Jackson wears the panda hat, which he bought in a local market so that he can’t be identified by foresters and conservationists at a distance. It is he who takes everyone’s money and stuffs it in his pants because, according to Fael, who translates, “he is the fastest runner”.

Getting caught, the men say, gets you four years in prison or a 25 000 kwacha fine — a lot if you work on one of the tea estates that colour the Massif’s collar scarab green where a day’s labour, which entails filling a 40kg bag with hand-picked tea leaves, gets you 180 kwacha, or $1.

Cedar cutters, by contrast, get 1 500 kwacha for every six-foot-long (2m-long), one-inch-thick (2.5cm- thick) plank they sell. The men say they harvest an average of 60 planks from a tree, and can process three trees a month if they go at it.

They only work an average of three days a week, though, because the climb to their work area is arduous: it took us five hours to get there, but it takes the cedar cutters two. They leave at 4am so that they’re already chopping at 6am, when the sounds of their labour are not likely to draw attention. The men could potentially make 90 000 kwacha ($500) a month, which in the context of the local economy is a relative fortune. The money has given rise to territorialism.

Porfera has written “musa male” on each plank in charred bark, a warning to other gangs — “be careful”. Mama Valley, this slender wooded ravine through which clear water slips over mossy rocks, is theirs, they’ve fought to protect it before and would again. The men say there are other gangs working nearby in the much broader Madzeka Valley. When we go there it is obvious they are right — the tracks leading into the forests are lined with unsprung deadfall traps for birds and rats.

The forests, however, are quiet and, although Fael thinks it’s because a storm is barrelling in from the direction of mount Chiperone in Mozambique (locals call these storms Chiperones), the wood chips which are the colour of rosè when freshly cut are closer to grey. “Even if they can cut three trees a month,” I say to Fael, “there are thousands of trees here. Maybe the problem is not as bad as everyone says?”

As with the baobab in its native lowveld, one gets, standing in Mulanje’s Ruo basin, a possibly mistaken sense of the Mulanje cedar’s numbers — it towers over its competitors, naked of branches to a height of several metres, and those that do stretch out over the forest canopy are draped in moss and lichen. “You must remember there are five villages at the foot of just this path,” says Fael.

“In every village there will be at least 10 men cutting cedar.” To reinforce his point, according to a World Bank funding proposal, in 2000 there were 105000 people living in 100 villages within 5km of the reserve boundary. The characteristics that make Mulanje cedar such valuable wood are embodied in the mountain club hut on the Ruo River. Silvered from standing for more than 50 years on a flank of the mountain that receives over 3 000mm of rain annually, it remains incredibly sturdy, and on the evidence of some of the older mountain club huts it will probably go half a century more.

In addition to its resistance to rot, Mulanje cedar is easy to work and has a smell which sent Van Der post into ecstasies of Baroque description. Given its value and the poverty of the surrounding population it is not surprising that the department of forestry awards annual licences to about 40 cedar sawyers. “Unfortunately, the terms are crude,” says Nangoma. “one must prove only that one has the finan- cial means to pay one’s workers, and afterwards to clear one’s equipment from the mountain. The licence is only supposed to apply to dead cedar, but this is an empty clause that merely leads to the ring-barking of trees.”

In donor funding proposals the MMCT and the foresty department are said to be working together to clean up illegal logging, both on the plateau and in the state forests on the massif’s flanks. In reality the relationship has become uneasy, especially since the conservationists began uncovering cases of political involvement.

In Nangoma’s view the cedar’s best shot at survival would be if the reserve was managed as a public-private partnership, but that proposal, too, is gathering dust. Instead, the forestry department has requested that the mountain be opened for a season of legal cedar logging. Nangoma recounts that “at some point in the early 2000s an NGO came up with a plan to supply boats to Lake Malawi’s artisanal fisher- man, and to spread the economic benefit they said that the boats should be made of Mulanje cedar.

The government OK’d the project without even consulting forestry to see if the off-take was feasible. To cut a long story short, an off-take was determined and licences were awarded, but what followed was a free for all, with the result that you will hardly find a single adult cedar between Chambe and Tuchila today.” It’s a story that echoes Dr Seuss’s deforestation parable The Lorax, with government as the faceless Onceler, seemingly intent on cut- ting until the last tree.

In the children’s book the Onceler enshrines himself in a tower in the landscape he has wasted and at the end, apparently remorseful, drops a single seed from the window. In the story of Mount Mulanje the MMCT in partnership with the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, has asked the Darwin Initiative to fund last-ditch research into management of the cedar. As an indication of just how late this initiative comes, one of the principal proposals is that collections of Mount Mulanje seed be deposited in Kew’s Millenium Seed bank, known informally (portentously) the Noah’s Ark of seed.

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