Rashid Magasa (not his real name) stands at the foot of Mount Mulanje. With him are 10 other people, all strong-looking men, waiting on the goods from the mountain.

The father of five is clad in a green shirt and a pair of black shorts that expose his rock-solid legs. He and his friends are engaging in casual chats about the weather and the maize in the fields.

A distance away are two school-aged boys selling local brew thobwa to the men who are waiting for the goods from the mountain and those bringing the goods down.

It is, in a way, a busy spot, a hub of different transactions. Here, business takes place, its unassuming appearance standing.

Magasa (L) with timber on his head makes it down the mountain as his friend comes behind him with a bag of charcoal on his head

“Today is a slow day,” says Magasa, with a rather positive look on his muscular face, “but it is better than it was a week ago. With rains, there was no way we could have made our way here. We were stuck in the communities. Our lives came to a standstill."

He, and the other men, spend their days on the foot of the tallest Mountain in South Central Africa, Mulanje, to get charcoal and timber. They are middlemen whose main duty is to transfer the wood products from the recesses of the foot of the mountain to the markets close to the tarred road – about five kilometres away.

For them, this is business. A way of survival.

“Without this,” says Magasa, “there is not much to do here. We will either be labourers in the tea estates, and that is not easy these days, or resort to crime. This is a decent work; the only problem are the forestry officials.”

A chain of plunder

In Mulanje Mountain, a whole business has been built on timber and other wood products from the mountain. The government, in a form of state enterprise, allows institutional millers to get timber from the mountain on the understanding that they will pay as well as replace the trees.

The local people, however, feel this is unfair and have resorted to illegal milling. It is the illegal milling that is harming the mountain. In fact, it is feared that  the two species indigenous to the mountain,Mulanje cedar and Mulanje chameleon, –will go extinct in the next ten years if no tangible action is taken.

Most people survive on burning charcoal from the mountain.

Of course, there are projects of replacing the trees but with timber milling, mostly illegal, on an all-time high the efforts of replacing feel like a drop of water in a burning forest.

What’s even worse, the communities see nothing wrong in what they are doing. “This has always been our way of life,” says Magasa. “Our forefathers used to get firewood from this mountain. Wood for the firing of kiln, building and everything was from here.”

He is right, and not. Back in the days, his forefathers indeed cut down trees; however, it was not to sell them. It was for domestic use only. Therefore the demand was rather low sincet he population was small. Most importantly the impacts of their activities had little bearing on the environment. Not now.

Harming oneself

Magasa remembers the devastating floods and a hailstorm that he witnessed in 2019 when Cyclone Idai struck.

The heavy nonstop rains  that wreaked havoc in 15 of the country’s 28 districts, directly affecting close to a million people,had not spared his village.It was only because the village is located on a higher ground that he was not a victim.

Two bags of charcoal brought by forest guards wait for their owners to carry them down after knocking off from work.

When asked if he has an idea on what might have caused the rains, he is specific: “They said it was a cyclone; I heard it on the radio. “It started in Mozambique, you could even see the clouds forming from there,” he explains while pointing west where Mulanje Mountain collapses into Milanje Mountain on the Mozambican side-just a walkable distance away.“We could see the heavy rains starting from there. Then, they came here. It was a storm.”

That the climate is changing, Magasa is aware of.. Even those who ply the trade of transporting wood products appear to know. They talk, for example, of the rains this year starting late and not filling up the rivers as they used to do. They talk of searing heats when the dry season comes. Something is shifting. Yet that this constitutes a problem, they dismiss.

One of the tea estates in Mulanje.
“There are many companies in this mountain”, says the father of five. These estates, they get water from the mountain. The timber milling companies, they are depleting trees in the mountain. If it is contributing to climate change, take on them first. What is worse? We have nothing to latch onto if we decide to abandon this trade.”

No funds for mitigation, adaptation

Magasa’s dilemma is a shared problem for many Malawians. They are usually victims of climate change but at the same time their source of livelihood involves harming the environment and thus contributing to climate change.

However, with a non-operational Climate Change Management Fund, their hopes of getting a better source of livelihood are a far-fetched dream. As soon as effects of a disaster such as the Cyclone Idai of 2019 are addressed, the government does not go back to check how the affected people are moving forward.

In 2018, climate change fund regulations were gazetted by the government in order to operationalise the Climate Change Management Fund, established as a subset of the Environment Management Fund.

Among others, the fund is meant to improve sustainable financing through increased budgetary support for climate change management interventions.

The interventions include adaptation, mitigation, capacity building, education, training, and awareness activities with the aim of building resilience among communities, livelihoods, and ecosystems.

At least 60 percent of the required resources are expected to be provided by the treasury through carbon taxes and levies. The remaining 40 percent is expected to be sourced from development partners and the private sector.

One of the men arrives at the business centre with charcoal on his head.

However, despite having established the fund in 2019, it has not been capitalised yet.

Recently, deputy director in the Environmental Affairs Department (EAD),Shamiso Najira, appraised participants drawn from civil society organisations (CSOs), academics and the media about the fund.

She highlighted that the fund capitalisation is expected to be sourced from development partners and domestic resources, the private sector and interested individuals in order to enhance financing of investments in climate change management and resilience building.

Najira also said there is going to be flexibility for the fund to evolve into a more desirable pool for the attainment of climate resilience.

In terms of the current set up as indicated in the regulations, Secretary to Treasury and EAD director are expected to oversee the disbursement of the funds. The fund manager will have to report directly to the department head.

Familiar foe

However, the Civil Society Network on Climate Change (CISONECC) national coordinator,Julius Ng’oma, highlighted the loophole in the governance structure, which clearly indicates absence of a board within the fund administration.

He argued that most of the decisions seem to be controlled by the line minister and EAD and might signify possible abuse, based on past experiences in government.

To illustrate, a carbon tax on all motor vehicles was introduced in 2019, yet the actual use of the funds and how they can be tracked remains a mystery.  

Stacks of timber await to be used at a tea estate.

The carbon tax was introduced as part of Certificate of Fitness (CoF) and pooled in a consolidated account at the treasury. Environmentalists questioned the rationale of putting the tax in a pool account. ThenThe collection of carbon tax through CoF ended abruptly without public awareness in 2020.

Currently, the carbon tax is embedded in petrol and diesel domestic pump prices and collected by the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) through the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera).

However, there still hasn’t been any roadmap on how and when the funds that have been collected for the past two years will be released to support climate change and environmental management initiatives.

“This is not in line with the sole objectives of setting up such a tax,” Ng’oma said, adding that the forestry and natural resources management sector faces numerous challenges that need urgent attention, yet it is one of the most underfunded government sectors.

As the wait for the operationalisation of the Climate Change Management Fund continues, Magasa hopes a time will come when he has a better source of livelihood that doesn’t impact on the environment and contributes to climate change.