News and blog icon
News & Blogs

New monitoring unit and training to boost forest conservation


One of the BRACC projects – Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests – is working closely with the Government of Malawi to develop a National Forest and Landscape Monitoring Unit.

The job of the National Forest and Landscape Monitoring Unit will be to improve Malawi’s estimates of its forest cover and forest condition. In other words, the Unit will not just measure how much forest there is across the country, but also, how pristine or degraded it is.

The Unit will ‘dive deep’ to monitor the effectiveness of activities that restore forest landscapes. This will include monitoring activities as diverse as individual tree planting, planting on boundaries of forests and fields, orchard establishment and farmer-managed natural regeneration, etc. These environmentally-sensitive activities do not always meet Malawi’s technical definition of ‘forest cover’ (land covering more than 0.5 ha, trees of 5 metres, and at least 10 percent canopy cover) but are nonetheless vital in supporting biodiversity across landscapes and providing other ecosystem services such as managing erosion, water flows, and so on.

The Unit’s work will be vital for measuring the status of Malawi’s forest health, and for galvanising efforts by the government, development partners, and all of society, to save and restore forests.

Combined with activities to train stakeholders on forest monitoring, the work is all targeted at reversing the country’s deforestation trend and achieving more resilient and functional landscapes across Malawi.

Trees ready for planting out, courtesy Ramzy Kanaan 2


Forests for the future

Malawi is forest-rich, and forests contribute directly to the livelihoods and wellbeing of almost all the country’s residents. However, the country’s forests are currently under stress from unsustainable use. The government estimates deforestation at 0.63% per year.

“We know that charcoal production is the leading driver of deforestation nationally, but there are other sources too, such as commercial firewood collection and settlement, which may be more impactful in specific areas,” said Ramzy Kanaan, MCHF Chief of Party, in a recent interview.

“Deforestation affects stream flows in watersheds, groundwater recharge, erosion and agricultural productivity. This can also have downstream impacts, such as making hydropower production less reliable.” It’s clear that deforestation undermines development gains.

Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests, a five-year project, uses a range of strategies and activities to give Malawians access to clean, modern cooking energies and technologies, and to protect their forests, as the project’s name suggests.

Activities include switching households from the most inefficient charcoal stoves to improved charcoal cookstoves, sustainable charcoal and liquified petroleum gas (LPG) cookers (described in this factsheet.) The switch brings immediate benefits to households, like saving money on fuel costs, and reduced indoor air pollution. It also reduces pressure on forests so that forests can keep delivering these wider social and economic benefits to society.

Measuring the health of the forests and understanding forest cover trends are essential to the efforts of the government and society to establish whether programmes such as the clean cooking initiative are making a positive difference for Malawi’s forests. As the famous saying goes: if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

Brick kiln with firewood, courtesy Ramzy Kanaan


Turning fortunes around

Malawi also has big ambitions for Forest Landscape Restoration – not just halting deforestation but helping forests to recuperate, either through natural regeneration or through direct tree-planting.

In 2017, the country launched an assessment of its forest landscape restoration potential, together with a strategy, which highlighted that forest landscape restoration “has a positive impact on nearly every aspect of Malawi’s many development strategies and programmes”.

Malawi has pledged to the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative that it will restore 4.5 million hectares of forest lands. It has also shared this pledge with the Bonn Challenge, a global effort to bring 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested land into restoration by 2030.

The MCHF-supported National Forest and Landscape Monitoring Unit will have a key role in tracking the success of these restoration efforts.

Measuring Malawi’s emissions

Monitoring the quantity and quality of Malawi’s forest cover will also improve the accuracy of calculations for greenhouse gas emissions released or retained by Malawi’s land surface. This information contributes to the national Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

The Greenhouse Gas Inventory is important for:

  • International transparency: it is submitted periodically to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC amalgamates the data with that from other countries’ to measure global emissions and see whether the world’s on track to limit global warming.
  • Basis for attracting climate financing: developing countries that can show credible evidence of forest conservation and reforestation through approved forest monitoring systems and tools can position themselves to receive what is called ‘REDD+’ funding from the international community, where REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) and conservation and sustainable management of forest carbon stocks.
Malawi forest landscape, courtesy Kanaan MCHF


Capacity-building journey ahead

Mike Chirwa of Winrock International is the expert at the helm of developing Malawi’s new National Forest and Landscape Monitoring Unit, based at the Department of Forestry. He’s just the man for the job, having spent the previous years with the Forestry Research Institute of Malawi, and directly supporting the REDD+ Experts Group and contributing to Malawi’s greenhouse gas reporting through National Communications. Through these efforts, Mike worked closely with the Protecting Ecosystems and Restoring Forests in Malawi (PERFORM) project, which helped to put in place Malawi’s land monitoring system; field-based National Forest Inventory, a full greenhouse gas inventory system and a reference emissions level for land-based emissions.

The next few years will see Mr Chirwa and his team equip the Forest and Landscape Monitoring Unit with methodologies, reference guides, and training materials, and develop a data management system for forest landscape management and monitoring.

“Malawi’s forests contribute to the health and well-being of every Malawian. Safeguarding these resources is key to our development—especially with the changing and less predictable weather and climate. And if successful, the data from the Unit should support Malawi to attract and focus considerable resources to further safeguard these important resources,” said Mr Chirwa.

It doesn’t all stay in an office: the workplan involves continuing to use field-based methods for monitoring forest alongside remote-sensing systems (e.g. satellite imagery and aircraft-based monitoring). There are plans to strengthen the capacity of district forestry officials and communities to monitor forest lands, including training on a variety of forest monitoring tools and approaches.

By the end of the project, MCHF intends to have trained 5,000 people and for 50 Malawian institutions to have improved capacities to address sustainable landscapes issues.

This capacity building effort, together with the establishment of a well-functioning National Forest and Landscape Monitoring Unit and the other elements of the MCHF project, look set to put Malawi’s deforestation trends in reverse.

More detailed information: read the MCHF factsheet on forest monitoring.

Ground hornbills, Liwonde National Park, courtesy Peter Seward


Malawi forest images:

Top: trees for planting out, Malawi, courtesy Ramzy Kanaan

Second from top: Brick kiln and firewood, Malawi, courtesy Ramzy Kanaan

Third from top: Malawian forest landscape, MCHF

Bottom: Ground Hornbills, critical for spreading seeds across the forest's ecosystem, courtesy Peter Seward (flickr)