Biomass in the red – but can we put biomass into REDD+?

Commercial forest rights that create incentives for Malawians to plant trees on farm for food and fuel are essential for REDD+ and climate change adaptation.

Last month (23–24 June), I attended a meeting in Bunda College, Malawi to discuss the latest satellite maps of forest cover loss and biomass in Malawi. The title — “MRV in woodland nations 2011” — may have sounded somewhat academic for technophobes like myself, but the research findings presented were anything but.

The latest work on monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) shows that Malawi is in deep environmental trouble. Maps of the net primary biomass production appropriated by humans indicate figures exceeding 100 per cent for much of South-West Malawi. In other words, Malawi’s biomass is starting to go into the red — demand is exceeding supply.

Growing populations require so much food, energy and construction materials that existing patterns of land use cannot keep up. Government fertiliser subsidies have held off an immediate food security crisis but are unlikely to be financially sustainable in the long term.

For the first time, accurate maps of forest cover loss between 2001 and 2009 produced by the University of Edinburgh show the impact of this biomass deficit on the country’s forest. Deforestation is running at 3.49 per cent (approximately 100,000 hectares each year). A new biomass map of Malawi produced by the Woods Hole Research Centre highlights how remaining stocks of woody biomass are almost exclusively found in forest and wildlife reserves and national parks.

The problem is that these protected areas are being hammered to meet the energy needs of the 93 per cent of Malawians that rely, for cooking, on fuelwood and charcoal production (which is also the country’s third largest industry in economic terms, employing 133,000 people). But the problem is even more serious outside these protected areas. Models of deforestation by Mzuzu University suggest that at current rates of tree consumption and replanting, Malawi’s off-reserve tree cover will be totally exhausted by 2024.

A notable absence

Not only does Malawi have to contend with rapidly disappearing forests; the country is also among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change. Roughly 90 per cent of Malawians depend on rain-fed subsistence agriculture for food and the country lies 15th on Maplecroft’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index, which lists extreme vulnerability to climate change.

Yet the country is notably absent from both World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) and UN-REDD+ initiatives, which tend to focus on more heavily forested countries such as those in the Congo Basin.

Perhaps the omission arises from the combination of low forest biomass and small spatial area found in Malawi. But the exclusion is surprising given 2010 FAO Forest Resource Assessment data, which show that more than half (54 per cent) of African deforestation-related emissions come from woodland nations like Malawi — compared with less than a quarter (21 per cent) from forested nations such as those in the Congo basin.

It would also seem sensible to prioritise support to countries where forest restoration maximises benefits for the poor and helps them adapt to climate change — another reason not to forget Malawi in REDD+.

REDD+ programme priorities

Malawi’s Forest Governance Learning Group (FGLG) has already begun exploring if and how REDD+ finance could help turn things around for the country. But a major stumbling block is that Malawi as yet has no national REDD+ programme!

What should the priorities of such a programme be? While this is clearly matter for national discussion, the focus will certainly have to be on hard-hit community areas off-reserve. And it will certainly have to grapple with both agricultural intensification — to provide food for growing populations — and sustainable biomass energy supply — to provide the means for cooking that food.

Providing more secure tenure and commercial incentives to plant suitable agroforestry trees that can fix nitrogen and improve soil fertility while also producing saleable products (including fuelwood) would seem an obvious priority. A national programme will also have to use robust transparency and anti-corruption measures to tackle the propensity of elites, both within and outside the government, to capture timber and charcoal revenues.

Past experience within the Malawi FGLG and Forest Connect initiatives suggest that communities do not engage in tree planting unless they have secure commercial tenure over the trees they plant — and that this security must involve both national legislative security and agreed land use by traditional leaders within the clan system.

In effect, a national REDD+ programme must make it in the commercial interests of Malawian farmers to grow trees on farm — both to increase agricultural productivity through agroforestry and to meet local energy needs.