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Govt Unfazed By Rtmu Call For Vigils

LILONGWE, Malawi, July 21, 2021 (AEJ) - Government has issued a statement that it is unfazed by a series of petitions and ultimatums issued by the Reformed Timbers Millers Union (RTMU) to both the President and Ministry responsible to allow the union harvest trees in the Viphya plantations for commercial purpose.

RTMU a grouping of loggers, recently made statements in the press that they will hold vigils at Forestry headquarters and the Ministry to pressure government to grant them part of Viphya plantation to commercial logging. The union alleges that there is favouritism and corruption to some foreign and local companies to operate in the plantation at the expense of Malawians.

However, as a direct reaction to RTMU remarks, director of administration in the Ministry, Hillary Namainja flanked by director of forestry, Clement Chilima and deputy director, Teddy Kamoto on Wednesday refuted claims that all commercial timber operators in the plantation were granted licenses under dubious means.

Namainja took time to provide background about the situation in the Viphya plantation. He said in February 1999, Raiply Malawi Limited signed a forest logging concession agreement with Government, to manage 20,000 hectares and was granted exclusive rights to fell, extract and convert wood within the concession area and to replant harvested sites. The agreement gave room for amendment of the conditions, whenever parties decided that was necessary to do so.

Hillary Namainja Director of Administration, Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources

He added that Raiply has now replanted nearly 10,000 hectares of the bare land and harvested sites and employs 2,300 people (1,700 permanent). By the end of the last forest season, only about 730 ha were bare in the concession area.

The remaining 33,000 hectares of the plantation was held for licensed Malawian loggers for sustainable timber harvesting.

According to Namanja, RTMU who originally traded under the name Timber Millers Cooperative Union (TMCU), was an umbrella union of seven cooperatives namely; Chamatete, Chibwaka, Kalungulu, Lusangazi, Luwawa, Viphya and Zikomo that were licensed to harvest trees in the plantation.

“In 2011, TMCU entered into a Forest Management Agreement (FMA) with Government for the sustainable management of 10,000 hectares of Viphya plantations for a period of 15 years. Sadly, the operations of TMCU were marred with problems and irregularities due to over-harvesting, failure to replant harvested sites and accumulation of unpaid bills from royalties. As a result, the Department of Forestry decided to terminate the agreement in 2015,” Namainja explained to the press.

However, as part of empowerment to indigenous Malawian businesses, in 2016, the then Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, directed that a fresh agreement be developed with the union, which was renamed RTMU, on understanding that this will enable them to settle outstanding debts and replant harvested sites.

As a way of cementing this partnership, in 2017, RTMU and Government jointly drafted an FMA, with fresh conditions, including reduced area of the concession from 10,000 down to 4000 hectares and reduced number of members to 35. RTMU submitted a schedule of debt repayment and a 10 – year FMA, detailing a sustainable harvesting and replanting schedule.

“The Private Public Partnership Commission (PPPC), Government Contracting Unit and Treasury reviewed the draft management agreement document and expressed some reservations. The PPPC recommended a thorough scrutiny (including capacity and feasibility analysis), prior to signing of the agreement). However, Forestry rejected applications from RTMU for harvesting rights, before a fresh agreement was signed,” Namainja told the press.

Later, RTMU was registered as a company and signed an agreement with TMCU to take over all responsibilities and obligations in May 2018. The then Minister, directed that while vetting of the draft agreement was in process, a special licence be issued to RTMU for harvesting trees in a restricted manner. A licence was therefore issued for harvesting Eucalyptus species of trees in compartment Z95A only, for a period of one year in 2018.

“Unfortunately, by April 2019, all major conditions of the licence were violated by RTMU, such as non-payment of royalties, insufficient replanting in harvested sites and non-settlement of debt in accordance with the agreed schedule. In March, 2020, RTMU signed a concession agreement for 4,000 hectares. One of the “conditions precedence” for operationalisation of the agreement was that RTMU will develop and submit a Sustainable Forest Management Agreement Plan within 6 months. This has not been done to date,” a concerned Namainja lamented.

Journalists captured during the press briefing in Lilongwe

During an extra-ordinary meeting held to express RTMU grievances to the Ministry which was chaired by Right Honourable Vice President Saulos Chilima. It was agreed that RTMU shall make a commitment to; Replant harvested sites, pay upfront for harvested trees and carry out replanting and care of trees in their concession area. Government committed to recommend to Treasury to consider supporting the union by writing off some of the long-outstanding debts, upon RTMU adhering to the above commitments.

“Unfortunately, RTMU has not made any commitments, even though this is also a key condition in the operationalisation of the signed concession agreement. So far, as RTMU, the union has planted only about 30 hectare (5 hectares in the last season) and has accumulated an outstanding debt of about MK102 million.” This situation leaves us with no choice but to prevent any further ecosystem degradation in the Viphya.

When asked in a telephone interview for his reaction. RTMU President Paul Nthambazale explained that the initial 10,000 hectares that they were assigned to them only had 2,700 hectares of actual forest covered with trees the rest was bare ground.

“We had 2,700 hectares shared between AKL Timbers, Leopard Matches, Mulli Brothers and seven other cooperatives. Now, if you do mathematics, how much was allocated to each one of us. You will notice that the portion that was given to us was not enough,” charged Nthambazale in a telephone interview with AEJ News Online.

Yes, we accrued an original debit of MK196m which comprise of loyalties accrued by the initial union. We did not create this debt ourselves as RTMU, this you must note. However, we have managed to scale down this loan to where it is now at MK102m. Government can control the agreement with RTMU, as we plan to buy trees on cash basis now.

“We are on the ground; we know what is happening. We are the people that elected this government and put them in power. They need to listen to the views of Malawians, who are the owners of the land, Nthambazale said urging this writer to visit the plantation and see some of the concerns raised.

The Viphya plantations is one of Africa’s largest man-made forests that were started in 1950s. It is part of the 4.5 million hectares under the National Landscape Forest Plan, which is part of the Bonn Challenge Initiative that seeks to restore 100 million of degraded area by the year 2030 on the entire African continent.

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Charles Mkoka
Charles Mkoka is one of AEJ News Editorial Production Crew

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