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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 fight forestry-related crimes, like illegal charcoal production.
  • Under a new amendment to the country’s Forestry Act, which treats charcoal as a forest product, the government now has the authority to issue stronger penalties, fines and jail sentences.
  • The USAID and UKAID-funded Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests (MCHF) program supports the government in improving its capacity to investigate and prosecute these activities.
  • This post is an analysis of the situation by a MCHF contractor. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Daniel Kabichi’s telephone has been ringing a lot lately. As head of law enforcement operations within Malawi’s Department of Forestry, he represents the country’s latest strategy to fight deforestation and the increasingly worrisome trend of illegal and unsustainable charcoal. There is no investigative unit for forestry-related crimes in Malawi, so the Forestry Department’s work is even more important.

Thanks to the adoption of a new amendment to the country’s Forestry Act, which treats charcoal as a forest product, the government now has the authority to use stronger penalties, fines and jail time, as a disincentive to illegal forest activity. Under the amended law, crimes for the production, transport and commerce of illegal charcoal are treated similar to other as illegal activities (like illegal logging).

Every week, he gets dozens of calls. One of those calls led to the arrest of a “prominent person” who was moving and selling illegal charcoal around the city of Blantyre. Kabichi triangulated the information with Malawi’s 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 somebody was fined this much for illegal charcoal.

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

“That case shows that our tactics to gather information, follow up, and partner between agencies are working, and it has brought hope for other cases that we are working on,” says Kabichi.

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

The USAID and UKAID-funded Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests (MCHF) program is supporting government partners to strengthen the forestry sector’s legal and regulatory framework, and to more effectively investigate and prosecute such crimes. In addition to the 2020 adoption of the amended Forestry Act, MCHF has backed the government to develop regulations for charcoal production, transportation, and sale. Maximum penalties can reach five million kwacha (~$6,100 US) or 20 years in prison, depending on the severity of the crime.

“We already see that Malawi’s judicial system has begun to view these cases as serious offenses,” says Kabichi.

With their bicycles weighed down by bags of illegal charcoal, transporters push their loads across the rough roads of the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve towards Malawi’s capital city of 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 on average 65 convictions for these crimes, and the guilty paid an average of 62,500 kwacha (~$75 US) in fines. In the wake of the new law and with MCHF’s support, courts are developing their capacity to handle larger caseloads and setting the precedent for convictions under the law. In the first three quarters of 2021 alone, Malawi’s courts recorded 343 convictions and fines averaged 283,000 kwacha (~$345 US).

The 2020 amendment to the Forestry Law also carries a forfeiture clause, putting the trucks and other assets used to transport charcoal at risk. This year the government has impounded more than 25 vehicles, making history as the first time any vehicle used in the illegal transportation of charcoal was forfeited. Vehicle forfeiture is expected to be a strong deterrent against committing forestry crimes.

As convictions increase, Malawi’s criminal justice sector faces new challenges. With no relevant system for case management, authorities cannot track crimes or the 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, like Rejoice Nyirenda from MCHF partner Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, attend court hearings all over the country and record data.

“Capturing this information and maintaining it in the database allows us to understand trends in crime, determine if law enforcement is a deterrence, and track changing attitudes towards forest crimes,” explains Nyirenda, a court monitor in the southern and eastern regions who is building the database of forest crime.

See related: Teachers in Uganda create lasting change for people and primates via clean cookstoves

The largest pieces of charcoal on display at the Mgona charcoal market, one of many such markets around the city of Lilongwe. Image courtesy of Nicholas J Parkinson/MCHF.

Modeled on Malawi’s recently recognized success in battling wildlife crimes, court monitors have the opportunity to see how cases are presented by prosecutors, defended, and ultimately treated by Malawian judges.

After one year of monitoring, Kabichi and the court monitors realized that there is 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 challenging task in credibly documenting the real value of charcoal that has been seized. Without this information, magistrates are challenged to assign a value to the act of producing illegal charcoal, and thus, determining an appropriate sentence. As a result, there is variability in sentencing from one court to another.

In an effort to help address the challenges of sentencing for judges, MCHF is supporting the Ministry of Justice to develop sentencing guidelines that will help to standardize the adjudication process and the determination of penalties.

“We need experts to help make the sentences more meaningful by assigning value to the trees being cut down for charcoal. The moment they can do that, 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 10+ years of experience in NGO communications, reporting, and writing in South America and East and West Africa.

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As the government cracks down on the production and transport of illegal charcoal, moving it 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 100kg, pedaling up to 80 kilometers over two days. Image courtesy of Nicholas J Parkinson/MCHF.