Follow the Trees

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. In 1800 only 2% of us lived in urban areas. Many people live in cities because it is easier to find work or for the excitement of being part of something big and sharing it with thousands of diverse people. Cities often offer all sorts of entertainment from theatre to football matches and nightclubs as well as a great range of cultural diversity, so no wonder people flock to them.  Some cities have even conveniently tamed nature for us, putting it in handy little pockets where the trees go in straight lines, non of this scattered nonsense if you please, and the ponds are neatly lined with concrete. In London wildlife never gets more threatening than the occasional vexed pigeon or surprised mouse on the Central line platform of Tottenham Court Road.

In Malawi life is very different. For one thing the majority of Malawians don’t live in cities. Lilongwe, the country’s capital, has a population of under a million. Blantyre, it’s second biggest city, has a population of 3/4 of a million. Aside from these two cities there are two or three others with populations of no more than 200,000, notably Mangochi, the closest city to AMPP’s base camp in Kasankha Bay. The population of Malawi is estimated to be closing in on 16 million. If these statistics haven’t sent you to sleep you will be wondering where everyone else is. The answer is, everywhere. They are scattered all over the country. Roughly 13 million people are spread out over an area half the size of the United Kingdom making Malawi the most densely rurally populated country in Africa, and they share it with hippos, hyenas and crocs in an increasingly tense relationship.

Roughly 85% of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas and about 80% of those are smallholder farmers. For decades now farming in Malawi has predominantly consisted of intense maize cultivation. To intensely cultivate maize it was, and largely is, seen as logical to get rid of almost all trees. In a country where 8 months of the year there is no rain  the soil is bound to get pretty baked by the sun, especially if shade is seen as superfluous. This leads to landscapes like the one you see below. When the rains come the soil is so compacted that it simply ups and leaves to go hang out with some rivers.

Now with a population spread out over the length and breadth of the countryside, most of the country looks like the above and top soil is largely consigned to nostalgia. The soil needs more and more fertilizers, chemical or otherwise, if it’s to yield anything decent and if the rains are anything but consistent, yields fail and famine alerts ensue. There are those who might say that this proves the efficiency of cities. If the population weren’t so spread out then they wouldn’t be doing so much damage to the environment. There are two major reasons why this is not the answer.



The first is to simply look at every other major city in Africa, with the exception of Cape Town perhaps. Nairobi’s problems with crime and violence are legendary and Lagos is no picnic. The slums in big cities all over the developing world are not a desirable way to go and you can be sure that if Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, were to rapidly urbanise, slums would spring up by the bucket load.

The other major reason why urbanisation is not the answer is that there’s a much more agreeable, cost effective and bordering on idyllic solution. Malawi’s climate, varying topography and ecosystems, make it a country where the most exquisite variety of foods and useful plants can be grown. Using permaculture and a countrywide reform of agricultural policy implemented to encourage agro-ecological techniques, villages that look like the above could very quickly look like the below. These scorched hells that yield nothing but carbohydrates and misery could be transformed into lush shady gardens where food is so abundant and diverse that all problems of malnutrition and food insecurity can be confined to youngsters evoking the silly mistakes of their forefathers with mirth and good humour as the country sets off on a new path of abundance and plenty. Doesn’t that sound lovely.

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These are not the musings of a deluded permaculture-hippy but facts expressed with jests because to do otherwise would be to commit my spirit to the most likely reality: things will get worse until famine hits the country hard. In 1992 Malawi had a population of 7 million. In 2002 there was a famine and close to a million people died. In 2013 the population is closing in on 16 million. That means that 10 million people in Malawi are between the ages of 0 and 20. Roughly 5 million of those are women. The birth rate is reported to be as high as 6 children per woman. Over the next 20 years if 5 million women have 6 children each, even allowing for high child mortality rates and low life expectancy, the country’s population could more than double. By 2050 the country is forecast to have a population of roughly 50 million. I can’t predict what the future holds but I can safely say that there is absolutely no way that this country could support that many people with the current agricultural policy and we can wave goodbye to the dwindling wildlife.

So there are hard choices to be made. The most likely thing is that the country will make the wrong ones and that famine and other disasters will ensue. Those of us who know that permaculture changes the face of this country, and of our planet, every day in ever growing areas, can have hope. But even for us it’s hard to hang on to hope when people seem so determined to follow the trees they have cut down and committed to oblivion rather than following living trees into a life of prosperity and abundance.

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