Backing down - a global issue

Written by Jo Carroll.


I'm writing this on the verandah of a lodge in the South Viphya Forest Reserve in a remote part of northern Malawi.  Crickets are chirruping. Birds flit in the trees.  I've seen bulbuls and louries and sunbirds and countless other birds whose names I forget the second after I'm told them.  It is blissfully quiet.

Most of the time. Some years ago the Malawi government gave a huge tracts of this land to a company who planned to grow pine trees to make paper.  When the first trees matured the company asked for more land, as they would need to plant more trees to ensure the continuous supply of paper.

The government refused:  you have the largest pine forest in Africa, they said. (I haven't verified this).  You can work with the land you have.

So the company sulked.  The government did not back down and held its nerve, and the company finally walked away, leaving the hillsides covered in pine trees.

Pine trees are not indigenous here.  And this change to the ecology has impacted significantly on local wildlife.  But many in the local villages see pine as an easy source of income - and they don't always stop at pine.

Illegal logging is rife - and the roar of a chainsaw can be heard from miles away.  There is also a huge problem with bushfires - too often started carelessly and devastating acres the land.

In the middle of all this the Luwawa Environmental Trust is growing, from seed, thousands of indigenous trees to replant the forest.  They have taken a rich landowner to court (and won) to prevent the logging of trees round the lake shore.  They are beginning to put right the wrong.

It is easy, in the light of the environmental challenge here, to throw up ones hands and give up.  The initial agreement to grow pine trees set the ball rolling.  But the government stood up to the company, and now a small but internationally-funded project is beginning to right decades of harm.

Back home, I hear there has been a stand-off between Wiltshire Council and the company building homes for retired people at the bottom of Granham Hill.  The company sought to delete a clause in the contract insisting they contribute to affordable housing in the area, in return for building the retirement flats.  I understand it is the Council who have backed down.

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