By CIJM Reporters

Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika could be putting the remaining part of the 53,000-hectare forest on a gamble by “entertaining sweet-talk” on him to allegedly influence issuance of concession licenses in exchange of kickbacks to support both his ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and his wife’s Beautify Malawi Trust (BEAM).

The Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi (CIJM) has seen a copy of a letter, which a grouping of indigenous Timber Millers wrote to Mutharika in November 2017 asking him to give them concessions in exchange for support.

Addressed to Mutharika and titled “Concerns over state of Viphya Plantation, plight of our members and thousands of others” the letter is signed by Paul Nthambazale as the new Union’s President, McDonex Jere as Vice Treasurer and Amon Kaweche as an executive member.

State House Director of Communication Doctor Bright Mollande expressed ignorance both on the petition from the Millers and the alleged support to BEAM and DPP.

Paradoxically, he asked CIJM for a copy of the petition, which we politely refused to obliged because of source protection.

Presidential Spokesperson Mgeme Kaliani asked for a questionnaire but when reminded for the response just retorted ‘OK’.

However, Ministry of Natural Resources Energy and Mining Public Relations Officer Sangwani Phiri has confirmed that the Department of Forestry is about allocate the Reformed Timber Millers Union (RTMU) another 4, 100 hectares of trees in the heavily depleted Viphya plantation for the Union to continue processing timber.

While accusing the Union of trying to use political influence to secure additional allocations of trees in the Viphya Plantation, Phiri was however quick to point out that the new allocation had nothing to do with the “presidential influence”.

The letter reveals how the grouping, calling themselves the Reformed Timber Millers Union (RMTU), claims to have been supporting the DPP and BEAM as well as promising Mutharika that it will continue surrendering royalties to DPP and BEAM if he directly orders the Department of Forestry to allocate them another concession area.

“We recently supported the BEAM project at Chisenga in Chitipa district. We contributed computers, cement, shovels and other equipment for the project. The money was contributed by members of the Union and we will continue…,” reads the letter in part.

Paradoxically, President Peter Mutharika has always reiterated that effective and efficient management of natural resources and the environment is key to the country’s socioeconomic development adding that he is concerned with the colossal damage to the environment whose economic costs have been massive.

Commencing in 2015/2016 financial year, Mutharika said his government will continue to implement programmes that would promote efficient and effective management of natural resources and environment.

That same year the government also nullified a 15-year concession agreement with the then Timber Millers Cooperative Union (TMCU), which represents the Lumberjacks, saying it had breached the agreement, which came into force in 2012, by wiping out the 10,000 hectares allotted to them within two years.

The government argued that TMCU never paid royalties, did not replant, prune, weed or make fire breaks.

TMCU has tried in vain to get a Court order to stop the government from implementing its decision saying there were issues to be solved before they vacate from the plantation.

However, the government then resorted to the deployment of the Malawi Defense Force to guard the forest against illegal loggers and millers who disobeyed the closure order.

It tasked the MDF to salvage the remnants of the 53,000-hectare man-made Plantation by driving out illegal Lumberjacks who also owed the cash strapped government about $1.2 million in unpaid fees.

But banditry continued to harvest trees in the forest.

Anecdotal evidence, several sources and a company official have all confirmed the development by fingering the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) as the sole perpetrator courtesy of the largesse and freebees of Raiply Malawi Limited.

Sources said Raiply Malawi Limited, a subsidiary of a foreign owned timber processing company headquartered in Kenya, is still providing both material and financial support to the MDF to secure its 20,000-hectare concessionaire to ward off illegal lumberjacks.

Since the deployment of the MDF into the Viphya Plantation, a former shadow of itself with less 5 per cent cover, the MDF has mainly concentrated in patrolling the Raiply area and reports of grave systematic human abuse have emerged since the MDF is known for implementing instant justice.

Company sources told CIJM that Raiply is doling out millions in form of fuel for army trucks, food and other accessories for MDF service men and women.

Now, Nthambazale is leading the same members now masquerading under the banner Reformed Timber Millers Union (RTMU).

In a telephone interview, Nthambazale said he could only comment on the matter after seeing our copy of the said letter to confirm whether it really originated from the Union.

“I cannot comment unless I see a copy of the letter to see if it came from us. We the Reformed Timber Millers Union are very open to the media. We inform them of any new developments we have but we did not distribute such kind of a letter to the media,” Nthambazale claimed.

However, like r Mollande, we could not share the letter with Nthambazale to protect our sources. But the letter reads in part:

“Members of [Reformed] Timber millers also remain loyal to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and DPP government. We have been behind the party for a longtime and have supported some of its activities. Empowering us in the plantation will mean more support towards the party activities in the North.”

The Ministry’s PRO Phiri then lambasted the Millers for cutting corners and blatantly disregarding the Department of Forestry, Forestry Policy and the Forest Act.

“It is nonetheless very unfortunate that they opted to go and meet the minister responsible which in a way is trying to politicize the whole matter that it be expedited against laid down procedures with the view to override certain procedural undertakings with the office of the Attorney General and that of the Public Private Partnership Commission (PPPC).”

He said his department was not denying the RTMU more trees to harvest arguing that the whole issue was entirely technical in nature and was being handled by the Director of Forestry and his lieutenants.

Phiri added that the matter being technical in nature, the Director of Forestry forwarded it to the Attorney General and the PPPC to legalize existence of any form of business transactional agreement between the Department of Forestry, the RTMU and government.

“This (the 4, 100 hectares) is part of the 10,000 hectares which they (the RTMU) were initially given which they failed to run in a hell lot of areas such as failing to replant in the 10,000 hectares, failure to weed, create bushfire breaks and sourcing tree seedlings,” said Phiri.

In the letter to the President, the RTMU is also reporting the department of forestry to the President that the Department duped them in first deal.

The RTMU says it signed a 15-year concession agreement with government in December 2011 to manage 10 000 hectares in the Viphya Plantation.

It says as per the agreement, the area in question had 6 561 hectares of mature pine stands, 553.80 hectares of young pine stands (below 10 years), 1340.70 hectares of eucalyptus while the remaining 1 544.10 hectares was bare land.

“However, when we went on the ground it was established that about 2 712 hectares was covered with pine trees. Of that figures over 712 hectares had already been allocated to other operators, meaning Timber Millers Union had less than 2000 hectares of pine trees,” reads the letter.

But Phiri rebuffed claims by the Union that they were duped in the first deal.

He wondered why the Union proceeded in harvesting the trees while well aware that the allocation was falling short of what they agreed with the government and immediately contacting the Director of Forestry to rectify the anomaly before getting into the Plantation.

“On their claim to having been duped, it is common knowledge that anything falling short of the agreed size in terms of the TORs has to be rejected at the very onset.

“Wisdom fails me to appreciate or understand their logic as why they proceeded with the harvesting activities well after having noted the size of hectares was not 10,000 hectares as was supposed to be,” he argued.