Katharina Cavano l Palladium - Mar 21 2022
Is Planting Bamboo the Answer to Preserving Forests in Malawi Without Disrupting Local Livelihoods?

When most people think about bamboo, climate resilience may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But in Malawi, bamboo crops, and more specifically giant bamboo, are at the heart of the country’s deforestation solution.

According to recent reports, between 2002 and 2020, Malawi’s total area of primary forest decreased by upwards of 8 percent. And while agriculture and smallholdear farmers are the backbone of Malawi’s economy, unsustainable farming practices are one of the reasons the country is facing a serious deforestation problem.

But it’s not the only reason. Many households across the country require wood for cooking and heating, and as Lawrence Lazarus, a member of the Feed the Future Malawi Ag Diversification Activity (AgDiv) team points out, the fight against climate change and environmental degradation in Malawi has become an existential dilemma. “How can we preserve forests without impinging on people’s livelihoods?” he asks.

Seeing an opportunity and a potential answer to the dilemma, in February 2019, AgDiv launched a national campaign to address deforestation and improve agricultural resilience in Malawai using Dendrocalamus asper, a quick-growing and non-invasive species of bamboo.

This bamboo, known as giant bamboo, takes only five to seven years to mature, after which it continues to produce new shoots for more than 50 years. Other hardwoods can take decades to mature, making the giant bamboo a critical solution for household fuelwood needs, and potentially deforestation.

Bamboo for Resilience

In Dedza, around the Chongoni hills, an area known for its Stone Age and Iron Age rock art and paintings, AgDiv identified an opportunity to utilise bamboo to improve watershed management and protect and reforest the area by creating a 12 kilometre buffer zone of giant bamboo, indigenous trees, and fruit trees.

The area, which is comprised of about 7,000 households, is prone to flooding and the AgDiv team hoped that the work would reduce the likelihood and severity of floods. In addition, the zone could protect the Chongoni hills forest reserves from illegal logging and the nearby farmland from soil erosion caused by the loss of arable land.

Over the past three years, AgDiv has covered an area of approximately 12,000 hectares, including the Chongoni Forest Reserve – 4,500 hectares of land protected by the government. Using approaches to protect and improve water quality, along with soil and water conservation techniques, AgDiv has protected a further 4,500 hectares of arable land.

“It’s been just three years since AgDiv introduced giant bamboo and other resilience interventions in our area, but we can already see a lot of improvement in our farmland and forests,” describes Fannuel Bizwick, a member of the Chongoni Hills community. “Soil erosion used to be a serious problem in our community.”

In partnership with surrounding communities, AgDiv has planted about 100,000 bamboo trees, 33,000 fruit trees, 180,000 agroforestry trees, and 360,000 indigenous trees. Over 500 hectares of forest has been left to naturally regenerate and communities have been organised into Village Forestry Area committees that help curb deforestation by enforcing bylaws against perpetrators.

“Season after season we used to lose crops and fertile soils due to runoff water from the mountains, but now the situation is improving, “Bizwick adds. “For some of us who received bamboo to plant within our households, we are already reaping the benefits. Personally, I have just used some of my bamboo to roof my house.”

Partnering for success

In addition to working closely with community members, AgDiv has partnered with the Lilongwe Water Board, which is responsible for supplying water to the central region of Malawi, to establish a buffer zone spanning 12 kilometres on each side of the river that will protect the river from siltation and address deforestation.

AgDiv supported the board with giant bamboo seedlings and campaigns to sensitise surrounding communities on the importance of protecting the area from grazing animals. As a result of the visits, communities agreed to keep their animals away from the area until the seedlings took hold.

Following the success of the site, the Board intends to plant bamboo and indigenous trees all the way down to the intake point, creating an ecological corridor that will protect the river and provide alternative fuel wood options to surrounding communities.

Malawi’s fight against deforestation is not over, but the success of AgDiv’s bamboo campaign and project, and the government’s recent commitments to providing alternate fuel sources, are signs of moving in the right direction.

Palladium implements AgDiv for USAID. See this video to learn more about the use of giant bamboo in Malawi. For more information, contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com.