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To everyone’s surprise, forests are returning to Malawi. Here’s why.

Timber (Image 1 of 10)

Local businessmen from Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial and financial hub, sell timber for construction. With a population that is expected to double in a few decades, Malawi is likely to experience a growth in demand for such goods.

Zomba Plateau (Image 2 of 10)

Zomba Plateau, a mountainous area in southern Malawi, visibly suffered from deforestation in the recent decades. “People in my village know that cutting trees isn’t a good thing. But here people don’t have education or jobs,” says Richard Kumwera, a resident of the Sambo village on Zomba Mountain. “When you don’t have anything to do, cutting trees and selling charcoal in the market is the easiest way to make a bit money.”

Charcoal (Image 3 of 10)

Sacks of charcoal for household fuel use await sale on the outskirts of Blantyre. In an attempt to save natural resources, Malawi has made most charcoal production illegal. Yet a dire need for fuel and income means that the practice continues.

Firewood (Image 4 of 10)

Atypical Malawian family consumes more than 150 bundles of wood per year for its cooking fire, according to RIPPLE Africa, a grassroots environmental organization operating in Northern Malawi that is working to introduce efficient stoves as well as carry out reforestation projects. On average, a single fire consumes about three large bundles of wood weighing 70 pounds (30 kg) each per week. “Planted trees can be cut again. But sustainable measures such as introducing efficient cook stoves will likely do more against deforestation,” says Charlie Knight, UK general manager of RIPPLE Africa.

Forests to farm fields (Image 5 of 10)

According to the World Bank, Malawi has a fertility rate of 5.5 children per woman. Many forests are being turned into agricultural fields to support the rapidly rising population.

From trees to maize (Image 6 of 10)

This landscape in Malawi’s Chiradzulu district is heavily deforested and dominated by maize. “We need to consider why people need to cut trees, and then eliminate these reasons,” says Knight.

Zomba Mountain (Image 7 of 10)

Zomba Mountain has suffered from heavy deforestation. Recent disastrous floods were partially due to deforestation, says Daniel Mwakameka, executive director of Action for Environmental Sustainability. The floods also served as an important wake-up call alerting residents to the need to control deforestation.

Children using filtered water (Image 8 of 10)

In recent years, many local and international organizations have introduced filtered water to rural communities to reduce the need to cut trees for charcoal. “We need to have a holistic approach [to] solving deforestation,” says Mwakameka. “In the villages where we have introduced filtered water, we have seen a dramatic decrease in charcoal usage, because families no longer need to boil their water.”

Tree planting at Kumpauda village (Image 9 of 10)

Atupele Muluzi, Malawian Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, recently promised that the government will plant 70 million trees during the next five years under a project titled “Plant One Tree per Person per Year” — “a very achievable goal for the government,” Mwakameka says. “In fact many communities are doing much more on their own already.”

Abraham Katumbi (Image 10 of 10)

Abraham Katumbi of Kumpauda village says he planted more than 400 trees on his own during the last year. “I am not unique in my village. All the households had similar efforts and planted hundreds of trees in deforested areas,” he says.


The East African country of Malawi epitomizes the global problem of deforestation. Now, there are signs it could epitomize the solution, too, as government, community members and grassroots organizations tackle the problem together.

Some 95 percent of rural Malawian households depend on wood for necessities such as cooking, clean water and sanitation. Many Malawians also depend on the money they earn from the illegal production and sale of charcoal made from wood, as well as commercial timber. And in recent decades, many Malawi forests have been turned into farmland. As a result, the country has the fifth highest deforestation rate in the world. In 1986, an economic consultant described Malawi’s deforestation problem as “unsolvable.”

With population growing rapidly, you might think the problem would be more unsolvable than ever today. Not so. Thanks to a three-pronged approach of planting trees, providing water filters and encouraging use of efficient cookstoves, the country is starting to turn the tide on deforestation.

Continuing to address the multifaceted issue of deforestation in the coming decades will pose an immense challenge. Nevertheless, with the combination of economic progress, efficient energy resources, right policies and ongoing community participation, tides might begin to change. Three decades after Malawi’s deforestation was described as unsolvable, solutions are emerging. View Ensia homepage

Editor’s note: Didem Tali produced this photo gallery as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. Her mentor for the project was award-winning environmental and science journalist Michelle Nijhuis.

Add Your Comments
  • rachel May. 28th, 2015
    thank you for this story - can you tell us more about the details? are these mainly government programs or are other ngos involved? how can we find out more about the water filtration, reforestation and other efforts that are making a difference?
  • Didem Tali Jun. 3rd, 2015
    Hi Rachel, thanks for your interest.

    There's a considerable effort from grassroots communities and NGOs, but as stated in the article, now the government also promised to plant 70 million trees.
  • Didem Tali Jun. 3rd, 2015
    You can also get in touch with the NGOs I interviewed for this article, RIPPLE Africa and Action for Environmental Sustainability in Malawi to get further information. They even have volunteering programs if you'd like to be directly involved with solving Malawi's environmental problems.
  • Peter Hancock Dec. 21st, 2020
    Dec 2020.
    I was teaching at Dedza Secondary School on the side of Dedza mountain from 1965 to 1967. The area, like most of Malawi at that time, was incredibly beautiful. There were large manmade forests of pine and eucalyptus as well as natural wild forests. Over the years since, I saw photographs showing the steady destruction of the forests and the emergence of large bare rocky areas. I knew this was driven by population growth from 4 million then to 20 million now (2020).

    I am delighted to learn that the problem is being managed and that an important aspect of the beauty of Malawi is returning.

    I hope that Malawi is still the warm heart of Africa that I so abundantly experienced back then.
    Peter Hancock
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