Tree planting, climate resilient tea bushes and cookstoves bring a lifeline to climate-ravaged Malawi

5th June 2019 By Sarah Roberts

Recently, I’ve been attending the Greta Thunberg-inspired school climate strikes with my 12-year old son Aidan. Standing amongst the crowds of young people as they urge action on this most pressing of issues, I’ve been reflecting on how the young people I meet through our programme work supporting tea workers and communities in Africa and Asia, are also stepping up to do their bit to combat climate change. It’s both encouraging and inspiring. On this #WorldEnvironmentDay, it’s a good time to share some examples of how the Ethical Tea Partnership has been helping the young and old in Malawi’s tea communities adapt to climate change through three innovative programmes.

Ask any tea farmer in Malawi if they are concerned about climate change and the answer is almost exclusively yes. Tea is a hugely important export for the country and climate change is affecting how and where tea can be grown. Most vulnerable to its effects are these smallholder farmers and their communities. Even though Malawi’s greenhouse gas emissions are miniscule – an estimated 0.02% of the global total, the country is on the front line of its impacts.

Our role at ETP is to help tea communities to understand climate impacts, support them to adapt their farming technique so that they become more resilient and help them to maintain incomes in the face of climate change and its effects.

Our environment programme which is part of the Malawi Tea 2020 partnership, focusses on three key areas which aim to mitigate climate change: tree planting to encourage reforestation, fuel efficient cookstoves to improve resource efficiency, and a new drought resistant tea seedlings programme that equips farmers with valuable skills to plant climate resilient tea bushes that produce better crop yields and maintain their incomes.

Deforestation is one key area we work on as it can increase the risk and severity of flooding. Erratic weather patterns can also increase the risk and impact of flooding. Changing weather patterns mean that Malawi is experiencing higher temperatures and longer periods of low rainfall, leading to droughts. Trees provide one of the most effective defences against the worst impacts of climate-related flooding, yet Malawi suffers from catastrophic rates of deforestation.

Tea farmers part of the tea seedling group

The Ethical Tea Partnership’s Malawi Tea 2020 programme is helping the industry, smallholder farmers and tea communities combat and adapt to this new normal. One of the priorities of this programme is to protect the tea workers and their communities by reducing deforestation and encouraging reforestation.

Trees for Life

The ETP tree planting programme develops tree nurseries in tea communities and trains the farmers how to plant, nurture and grow thousands of tree seedlings annually encouraging a systematic approach to reforestation.  Alongside this, we are running tree conservation awareness-raising events, whereby the whole community is encouraged to help protect the newly planted seedlings. ETP also works with local leaders, developing new laws that support tree conservation.

In 2014 the Ethical Tea Partnership founded its first tree nurseries to help farmers raise a diverse selection of fast-growing tree seedlings to support reforestation efforts and provide sources for construction and fuel. More trees also offer many other benefits including improved soil stability and fertility, increased shade and a fuel and food source. Today, thanks to local interest and support, ETP now supports 22 tree nurseries. In 2018 we planted approximately 60,000 trees. If the trees survive, this could help save up to approximately 350 metric tons of CO2. We are working towards a goal of planting a further 60,000 trees grown by our nursery groups in 2019.

Mavuto Banda is Natural Resources Manager for the Ethical Tea Partnership in Malawi and oversees the environmental programmes. He explains the process.

“The seedlings are diverse forest indigenous trees like mahogany, gliricidia, nsangu. They have different benefits. Some improve the soil; the leaves of gliricidia can be fed to goats; many are very fast growing. Mahogany is good for water conservation. If they are planted along the riverbank, the trees help reduce soil erosion and bank destruction during heavy rains.”

The response from the local community has been enthusiastic, and the commitment from the school students to manage their nurseries and to educate their peers has been inspiring.

“We started the programme in 2017 with 12 tree nurseries raising seedlings. Eight were from smallholder tea farmers and four were from schools where the smallholders’ children go. Last year, one school distributed seedlings to another five schools. We are nurturing the next generation of environmental leaders and facilitating them to take action from childhood. The response has been amazing!”

Esnart Tailosi is 72 years old and a member of her local tree nursery group. For her, the reforestation of the mountains cannot come fast enough.

“When I was a child, the mountains were so beautiful. There was a blanket of forest, so thick that if you went up with another person, you couldn’t see each other. It was full of wild animals but they have all gone now.”

Her grandson Matthew is 22 years old. He is aware that he is also bearing witness to a great change and that the world his grandmother recalls is one he can only recreate in his imagination.

“Even though I am young, I have seen a great change. There were some trees on the mountain when I was a child, though I was told then that it was nothing like it used to be. But now even they have gone. I can only imagine wild animals on the mountains from stories my grandmother has told me.”

It is Matthew’s generation who will have to lead the charge to bring back the forests.

Esnart at home with her grandson Matthew  - she has planted trees to combat deforestation in  her local area.

“I fear it will be very bad when I have children. They will be very angry with our generation for allowing this to happen. But I hope it won’t come to that and we will choose to reforest the mountain instead.”

Mavuto believes the key is to instil an intrinsic value to the very idea of trees.

“We are encouraging behaviour change. It’s not enough to cut down fewer trees, we must also replenish the forests. Now trees are becoming a status symbol. You must have money if you haven’t cut all your trees down for firewood. Trees command respect.”

Esnart agrees as she looks out to the trees that surround her home.

“I have a lot of trees on my land. Many houses without trees lose their roof to high winds. The trees keep me safe.”

Cookstoves

Cookstoves is the second area where we focus our efforts as electricity is an expensive and elusive luxury in Malawi and around 97% of households still rely on charcoal or firewood for cooking. It is hard to over-emphasise how devastating the resulting deforestation is.

Taking action to help halt the deforestation is what the ETP Cookstoves programme is all about. The cookstoves we promote have been carefully designed to reduce fuel needs by up to a third during cooking when compared to traditional open fires and they allow an average family of five to reduce their fuel consumption by around 30%. The lack of electricity – only 4% of people living in rural Malawi have access to it - means that most communities have to turn to wood for fuel. By training women to make and sell the fuel efficient cookstoves so that their use becomes widespread, the ETP programme aims to slow down the rate trees are felled while providing women with a new source of income. Cookstoves also offer several other potential benefits, including improved health from reduced smoke inhalation and the time and money saved as the women don’t need to gather or pay for less firewood.

Mavuto Banda stresses the importance of changing attitudes towards deforestation.

 "Ultimately we want to reduce deforestation and increase reforestation. People won’t stop cooking, but we can make it more efficient through the distribution of fuel-efficient cook stoves.”

While reducing the demand for wood, the environment programme also focuses on increasing supply with a ‘grow your own energy’ philosophy. The aim is to encourage all members of the community to be able to meet their fuel needs without cutting down the remaining forests.

We are also working on an important programme to support over 1,000 farmers to plant drought resistant tea bushes by teaching them new valuable skills. This helps to increase crop yields and farmers’ incomes.

Since 2014, we have developed 59 nurseries with farming communities who have planted out 730,000 new drought resistant tea bushes. Over 6,000 people have benefitted from this work.

The Ethical Tea Partnership will continue to work with tea communities to urgently improve climate resilience through these and other programmes.

While the drivers of climate change require global solutions, these measures show how on-the-ground actions are helping all generations of tea farmers survive and we hope, ultimately thrive.

Photo credits: Andy Hall

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