A growing population influences restoration priorities
Nearly 80 percent of Malawi’s land area (8 million hectares) is deforested or degraded. Since 2000, the country has lost almost 11 percent of its tree cover mainly to small-scale agriculture and wood collection and charcoal for household consumption. More than 90 percent of the population depends on agriculture as a source of livelihood. And nearly every household (97 percent) relies on firewood or charcoal as the primary source of cooking and heating fuel. A rapidly growing population continues to put further pressure on the remaining forests.
Identifying priorities for restoration activities
Recognizing the disastrous impact of further forest loss on landscapes and livelihoods, in 2016, the Government of Malawi committed to restoring 4.5 million hectares of forests by 2030 under the Bonn Challenge. So far, the government – with the support of donors and civil society organizations – has taken several steps to achieve this goal, while balancing objectives of food security, resilience to climatic extremes, and biodiversity conservation. Through an assessment of the socioeconomic context, existing restoration activities, and the opportunities for further forest restoration, the government identified priority areas for intervention (see Table 1). The assessment identified 7.8 million hectares of land suitable for restoration. In 2017, the government developed the National Forest Landscape Restoration Strategy, outlining an action plan to achieve the 4.5 million hectares restoration goal. These interventions are being implemented throughout Malawi, and include climate-smart agriculture, soil and water conservation, river and stream-bank tree planting, agroforestry, and afforestation. The government has also put a monitoring system in place and plans to report on its restoration progress this year.
Priority restoration interventions
Opportunity area (ha)
Percent of the countryAgricultural technologies (conservation agriculture, farmer-managed natural regeneration, agroforestry)
Soil and water conservation
Community forests and woodlots
River and stream-bank restoration
A bundle of measures
To reduce the demand for charcoal and firewood with the goal of reducing pressure on forests, the government has also adopted a national strategy on charcoal to promote alternative cooking fuels, the adoption of efficient cookstoves, and working with local communities to ensure sustainable firewood harvesting and charcoal production. The government plans to sponsor the restoration interventions through the expansion of cash-for-work programs, and incentivised grants or loans to smallholders. It also intends to review, adjust, or remove perverse incentives through subsidies, and to establish a national restoration fund. For example, through the Malawi Youth Forest Restoration Program, the government plans to invest USD 2 million (1.5 percent of the government’s annual spending) of its domestic budget to restore 50,000 hectares and to create ownership for forest restoration interventions among youth. The program will employ youth to plant fruit trees and bamboo and to learn how to manage their local forests.
Donor-funded initiatives in Malawi include implementation of the “Large Scale Forest Landscape Restoration in Africa” program by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) with the support of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Resource Institute to restore 25,000 hectares of degraded land in the Ntcheu District. Malawi has also recently joined the “GEF7 Impact Programme on Sustainable Forest Management in Dryland Landscapes,” under which the government will work with FAO to implement a restoration project in the Miombo woodlands.
Many existing forest landscape restoration initiatives are also supported by different rural development and environmental conservation projects including restoration through conservation agriculture, soil and water conservation, river and stream-bank tree planting, agroforestry, and afforestation. Similarly, in many areas, farmers have adopted management of naturally regenerating forests with the purpose of restoring soil organic matter, and increasing crop yields and supplies of wood, fodder, fruit, and other products.
Trees on farms provide steady benefits
One prevalent restoration approach that aims to reduce the need for fertilizer use and increase productivity is farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). In FMNR, the farmer selects and cultivates regenerating trees on his or her cropland at sparse intervals, interspersed with cropland. The trees stabilize the soils to prevent erosion, while the fodder provides a natural source of fertilization. Over the past several decades, anecdotal evidence has shown that FMNR has increased in many parts of Malawi thanks to the efforts of local non-profit organizations, extension services, and peer-to-peer learning. However, there have been limited studies to quantify the extent of the practice.
A new analysis of two districts (Dowa and Mchinji) in Malawi reveals that on-farm tree cover is actually quite widespread, with relatively high densities that speak to the utility of these trees for farm health as well as other ecosystem benefits. The analysis, which utilized the U.S. Geological Survey’s Tree Cover Density Mapping Tool to measure tree density outside of forests, found that the density of this tree cover was relatively stable over an eight-year period from 2009-17. Thus, while these trees represent a previously uncounted restoration, farmers in these areas have yet to increase the scale of their tree-based restoration activities. The maps in Figure 1 show the percent of on-farm tree cover in 2009 (top) and 2017 (center), and the change in density between the two dates (bottom).
Figure 1. Comparison of on-farm tree cover in the Mchinji and Dowa districts of Malawi, in 2009 (top) and 2017 (middle), in percent, and direction of change between the two periods (bottom)
Source: The Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining. (2017). Forest Landscape Restoration Opportunities Assessment for Malawi.
Overcoming barriers to smallholder-managed restoration activities
Several barriers inhibit smallholders’ implementation of restoration activities. These include a lack of emphasis of on-farm trees in agricultural extension messaging, the perception that it takes a long time for farmers to realize the benefits of restoration, and concerns that trees on the farm could reduce crop yield by taking up space otherwise dedicated to agricultural production. In addition, poor tree seedlings quality in nurseries often results in low survival rates of planted trees. Other reasons include bush fires and lack of post-planting care. Furthermore, the existing fertilizer subsidy programs might conflict with the use of agroforestry practices under the restoration interventions. Therefore, financial and technical support to farmers through the provision of good quality planting material, equipment, and training is necessary in the design and effective implementation of restoration interventions.
While the implementation of Malawi’s forest restoration commitment is in the early stages and it is too soon to know how much has been restored, the government has put in place a multitude of policies and mechanisms to achieve this goal. However, achieving the goal by 2030 will depend largely on how the government, civil society, and private-sector actors will implement these restoration strategies, as challenges such as lack of resources and capacity at the farm level continue to persist.
[a] Analysis conducted by USGS; see the full case study in the Goal 5 update
 The Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining. (2017c). National Forest Landscape Restoration Strategy of Republic of Malawi.
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Banner photo: On Tithokoze Farmin Mpingu, Malawi. Bananas are supposed to be grown as three next to each other and harvested at different times. The three interreliant trees are nicknamed the Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. Photo by Melissa Cooperman/IFPRI via Flickr