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Focus on Forests (text version)

Miombo woodland in Malawi

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The Government of Malawi wants to conserve its natural forest and it also wants to raise the standard of living for some of its poorest rural people. One project, aided with money from the UK government, aims to do both.

Miombo is a type of deciduous woodland which covers a vast area of southern Africa. In the Zomba area of Malawi, the miombo woodlands are very degraded. In order to grow enough food, local people had cleared areas for crops and huge amounts of wood for had been used as fuel by tobacco companies. (They now grow their own on plantations.) The Government project is trying to rediscover lost knowledge about the ecology of these woodlands and to investigate products which could be harvested commercially.

Experts have been working with local communities to find out their needs and help with ways of meeting them while still preserving the woodlands. They discovered that alongside the farming, many products were gathered from the forest, mostly by women trying to support their families. However, these products, such as thatch grass, ropes, mushrooms and fruit, earned the women very little. Experiments are going on into schemes which would bring a higher income; these include bee-keeping and tapping Karaya gum, which is used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The women are also being taught about the true market value of their products and the need for high quality.

The project staff are training the communities in the skills needed to help the woodland regenerate and local people are now working at thinning, firebreak maintenance, forest patrols and so on. Some people are also being trained as managers. In addition, workshops are being held for other communities so that what has been learned can be passed on.

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