Malawi steps up action against illegal charcoal trade (analysis)

  • New forestry laws and improved capacity in Malawi’s courts have improved law enforcement’s ability to tackle forestry-related crimes, such as illegal charcoal production.
  • Under a new amendment to the country’s forestry law, which treats charcoal as a forest product, the government now has the power to impose harsher penalties, fines and prison terms.
  • The Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests (MCHF) program, funded by USAID and UKAID, is helping the government improve its ability to investigate and prosecute these activities.
  • This post is an analysis of the situation by an MCHF contractor. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Daniel Kabichi’s phone has been ringing a lot lately. As Chief of Law Enforcement Operations within Malawi’s Forestry Department, he represents the country’s latest strategy to combat deforestation and the increasingly worrying trend of illegal and unsustainable charcoal. There is no investigation unit for forestry-related crimes in Malawi, so the work of the Forestry Department is even more important.

Thanks to the passage of a new amendment to the country’s forest law, which treats charcoal as a forest product, the government now has the power to use harsher penalties, fines and imprisonment. , to deter illegal forestry activities. Under the amended law, crimes related to the production, transport and trade of illegal charcoal are treated like other illegal activities (such as illegal logging).

Every week, he receives dozens of calls. One such call led to the arrest of a “prominent person” who was transporting and selling illegal charcoal in the city of Blantyre. Kabichi triangulated the information with the Malawi Criminal Investigation Unit, and they made the arrest. The suspect was charged under the new law and a magistrate fined him three million kwacha, or approximately $3,700 (US). It was the first time in Malawi’s history that someone was fined for illegal charcoal.

A large charcoal kiln containing more than 40 trees smolders in the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, more than 60 km from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. The process of burning illegal charcoal, from cutting to selling, can take between 3 and 4 months. Image courtesy of Nicholas J Parkinson/MCHF.

“This case shows that our tactics of information gathering, follow-up and partnering between agencies are working, and it has brought hope for other cases we are working on,” says Kabichi.

Until recently, crimes like the illegal felling of trees for charcoal production often went unnoticed by the law. As Malawi’s environmental crises reach a boiling point, the government is stepping up its focus on law enforcement and public policy reform to tackle behaviors that exacerbate deforestation.

The Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests (MCHF) program, funded by USAID and UKAID, helps government partners strengthen the legal and regulatory framework for the forest sector and more effectively investigate and prosecute these crimes. In addition to the passage in 2020 of the amended forestry law, the MCHF has supported the government in developing regulations for the production, transport and sale of charcoal. Maximum sentences can reach five million kwacha (~6,100 US$) or 20 years in prison, depending on the seriousness of the crime.

“We are already seeing that the justice system in Malawi has started to treat these cases as serious offences,” says Kabichi.

With their bikes weighed down with sacks of illegally produced charcoal, transporters push the load through the rugged roads of the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve towards Malawi's capital, Lilongwe.  Image courtesy of Nicholas J Parkinson/MCHF.
With their bikes weighed down with sacks of illegal charcoal, transporters push their loads over the rugged roads of the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve towards Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. Image courtesy of Nicholas J Parkinson/MCHF.

Higher conviction rates

Before the law was passed, law enforcement struggled to investigate, charge, and prosecute deforestation crimes. Each year between 2016 and 2020, prosecutors recorded an average of 65 convictions for these crimes, and the culprits paid an average of 62,500 kwacha (~75 US$) in fines. In the wake of the new law and with the support of the MCHF, the courts are developing their capacity to handle larger caseloads and setting a precedent for convictions under the law. In the first three quarters of 2021 alone, courts in Malawi recorded 343 convictions and fines averaging 283,000 kwacha (~US$345).

The 2020 amendment to the forestry law also includes a confiscation clause, putting at risk the trucks and other assets used to transport the charcoal. This year, the government has seized more than 25 vehicles, marking history as the first time a vehicle used in the illegal transportation of charcoal has been confiscated. Confiscation of vehicles is expected to be a powerful deterrent against the commission of forest crimes.

As convictions increase, Malawi’s criminal justice sector faces new challenges. Without a proper case management system, authorities cannot track crimes or offenders. This means they cannot recognize repeat offenders, and those who post bail rarely return for court hearings. Court monitoring is the first step in addressing these challenges. Monitors, such as Rejoice Nyirenda of MCHF partner Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, attend court hearings across the country and record data.

“Capturing this information and storing it in the database allows us to understand crime trends, determine if law enforcement is a deterrent, and track changing attitudes towards crime. crimes,” says Nyirenda, a forensic comptroller in the southern and eastern regions who builds the forest crime database.

See related: Ugandan teachers create lasting change for people and primates through clean cooking stoves

The larger chunks of charcoal are displayed and sold at the Mgona Charcoal Market, one of many such markets around Lilongwe town.  Image courtesy of Nicholas J Parkinson/MCHF.
Larger chunks of charcoal on display at Mgona Charcoal Market, one of many such markets around Lilongwe town. Image courtesy of Nicholas J Parkinson/MCHF.

Drawing inspiration from Malawi’s recently recognized success in tackling wildlife crime, court watchers have the opportunity to see how cases are presented by prosecutors, defended and ultimately dealt with by Malawian judges.

After a year of monitoring, Kabichi and forensic monitors realized that there was often a lack of evidence to prosecute additional people involved in the creation of any bag of illegally produced charcoal. Due to its nature, investigators face a difficult task in credibly documenting the true value of the charcoal that was seized. Without this information, magistrates are challenged to assign a value to the act of illegal charcoal production, and therefore, to determine an appropriate sentence. Therefore, penalties vary from court to court.

To help address sentencing challenges for judges, MCHF is assisting the Department of Justice in developing sentencing guidelines that will help standardize the trial process and sentencing. .

“We need experts to help make the sentences more meaningful by assigning a value to trees cut down for charcoal. As soon as they can, they can assist the courts and help adapt our legislation by making us all aware of the value of these trees,” says Nyirenda.

Nicholas J. Parkinson is a communications specialist involved in several projects including MCHF in Malawi. Nicholas is a former journalist with over 10 years of experience in NGO communication, reporting and writing in South America and East and West Africa.

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As the government cracks down on the production and transportation of illegal charcoal, moving it around by bicycle has become one of the main ways to bring illegal charcoal from the forest to the city. From Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, transporters carry loads weighing more than 100 kg, pedaling up to 80 kilometers in two days. Image courtesy of Nicholas J Parkinson/MCHF.

Analysis, Charcoal, Commentary, Community Development, Deforestation, Development, Forests, Illegal Trade, Poverty, Poverty Alleviation, Sustainable Development, Rainforests

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