Reluctantly, Malawi’s farmers cut down trees to survive

By Seline Meijer, edited by Kate Langford

Newly published research looks at how farmers in Malawi view the cutting down of trees from their forests and what factors drive this behaviour.

Photo: Kay Muldoon

The research, published in the scientific journal, Forests, Trees and Livelihoods found that farmers have strong negative attitudes towards cutting down trees from the forest. But despite these firmly-held attitudes, many still continue to collect firewood and other tree products from nearby forests.

Malawi has a unique and diverse flora and fauna, much of which occurs in the country’s forests. But Malawi is also one of the poorest countries in Africa with a growing human population. Increased demand for farmland has contributed to Malawi having one of the highest rates of deforestation in the region.

Poverty and a lack of alternative income-generating opportunities mean many farmers in Malawi have little choice but to harvest forest resources for food, firewood, medicine, building materials and income.

In this collaborative study between University College Dublin and the World Agroforestry Centre, and funded by Irish Aid, researchers sought to understand the attitudes of farmers in Malawi to cutting down trees from the forest and how these attitudes affect their decisions to cut down trees.

The researchers carried out 200 household interviews with smallholder farmers in two districts to learn more about their attitudes, intentions and behaviours.

“The results reveal that farmers in Malawi generally have negative attitudes towards cutting down trees from the forest”, says Seline Meijer, lead author of the study.

“Farmers felt that important others, such as their spouse, peers, village chief and extension workers would not approve of cutting down forest trees.” She adds that tree-felling was considered to be constrained by several factors, including strict forest protection by the village chief and the forestry department, not having enough time, and not having the physical strength to cut down forest trees.

Even though many farmers were actively collecting tree products from forests, they expressed little intention to cut down trees from the forest.

In Chiradzulu district in southern Malawi, where population densities are high and most forests have disappeared, farmers viewed the cutting down of forest trees as more negative compared to farmers in Mzimba, where population densities are relatively low and forests are more abundant. In Chiradzulu, farmers had greater pressure on them from other people not to cut down forest trees and tended to encounter more factors which made it difficult for them to do so.

So, if farmers view cutting down trees from forests negatively, why are they still collecting poles and firewood from the forest?

A series of 16 focus group discussions with groups of farmers in both districts showed poverty to be the main reason. As one farmer in Mzimba district explained, “I feel bad that forest trees are being cut down, we try to stop people cutting trees but they do not listen because that is how they earn their income”.

“The main cause for the continued extraction of trees and tree products from the forests appears to be the lack of alternative livelihood opportunities” says Meijer. “To overcome deforestation in Malawi, poverty alleviation and livelihood diversification are a priority.”

In an attempt to determine if agroforestry could reduce the current pressure on native forests, Meijer and colleagues linked their research findings to an earlier study which examined the attitudes towards planting trees on farms among the same farmers.

“If farmers realise the benefits of planting trees­ as we found in the earlier study­ then we would expect those who plant trees on their farms to be less likely to cut down trees from the forest,” explains Meijer.

However, demonstrating this link has proved difficult, and results the research, published in Agroforestry Systems, show that of the 200 farmers interviewed, 76 per cent planted trees in the past 5 years, 50 per cent collected firewood from the forest and 21 per cent collected poles.

“There was no evidence showing a direct relationship between the attitudes of farmers towards planting trees and those towards cutting down trees from the forest, nor were the behaviours in relation to tree planting and cutting down trees from the forest significantly associated.”

Meijer and colleagues did however find evidence for an indirect relationship between tree planting behaviour and cutting down trees from the forest. Farmers who had planted trees on their land had more negative attitudes towards cutting down trees from the forest.

The scientists recommend further research to better understand where, and under what conditions, increased tree planting might contribute to reduced deforestation.

Download the full papers:

Meijer S.S., Sileshi G.W., Catacutan D. & Nieuwenhuis M. 2015. Farmers and forest conservation in Malawi: the disconnect between attitudes, intentions and behaviour. Forests, Trees and Livelihoods. DOI: 10.1080/14728028.2015.1087887

Meijer S.S., Sileshi G. W., Catacutan D. & Nieuwenhuis M. 2015. Agroforestry and deforestation in Malawi: inter-linkages between attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. Agroforestry Systems. DOI: 10.1007/s10457-015-9844-4a'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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