“Why am I doing this again?” I ask myself as I stand at the bottom of Malawi’s Mulanje mountain, staring up at my pinprick destination point.
With its tallest peak thrusting 3,000 metres above sea level, Mulanje is the second highest mountain in southern Africa.
And it certainly feels like it as I struggle up one of its many trails. About three hours into my sweat-drenched ascent through tropical forests, the hiker in front of me does a sideways duck.
I mimic his action while swiveling my head to see the obstruction. To my surprise, it’s not a jutting tree branch, but a six foot-long saw balancing on the shoulder of a Malawian man nimbly jogging down the mountain.
“We could have had our heads chopped off,” I grumble as I stare back at the saw bouncing down the trail.
Potential decapitation aside, the saw points to a bigger challenge on Mulanje: tree conservation.
The beauty of hiking Mulanje lies not in conquering its heights, but in getting lost in its 640,000 hectare expanse. Its dense forests, ranging from rainforest to alpine, house so many plants and animals that it’s one of few International Biosphere Reserves south of the Equator.
But in its foothills, space is tight. Surrounding districts have a high population density of 185 people per square kilometer, which puts pressure on the mountain’s resources. And while most locals are subsistence farmers, selling firewood to the nearby city of Blantyre is an important way for some to supplement their incomes. They earn an average of CAD $0.71 to CAD $2.14 per log sold.
According to a study by the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), demand for Mulanje firewood and charcoal grows alongside Blantyre’s population. And as firewood becomes harder to find, sellers push deeper and deeper into the forest reserve.
While climbing Mulanje, it’s common to be passed by people coming down the mountain with timber on their heads. Some of the collection is legal. Some is not.
Deforestation has ripple effects. According to a recent blog by the Adventist Development Relief Agency in Malawi, deforestation is causing floods and soil erosion in communities surrounding Mulanje, further threatening livelihoods.
Many projects are underway to try and sustain both Mulanje’s environment and communities.
For example, one project encourages people to switch from cooking on open fireplaces to cooking on energy-saving stoves which produce more heat using less wood.
USAID recently granted US $3 million to increase community involvement in protecting Mulanje’s resources while also providing locals with income generating opportunities.
As our group continues lumbering up Mulanje’s back, the saw prompts us to shake our heads at illegal deforestation as we discuss the ‘obvious’ importance of maintaining Mulanje’s ecology and beauty, at least one reason for which could be maintaining tourism in the area.
It’s easy talk for us. After all, we’re the ones choosing to use our free time and disposable income to climb a mountain just for fun.
For those hiking into Mulanje’s depths with saws on their shoulders or wood on their heads, life choices are a little different.