NKHATA BAY, Malawi, March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bonster Kabaghe was fresh out of secondary school when he witnessed how a denuded piece of land turned green after beehives were introduced on cotton farms near where he was living with his uncle in Malawi’s tobacco-growing district of Ntchisi.
Back then, in his teens, Kabaghe did not grasp the connection between people’s fear of bee stings and rejuvenation of the area’s trees.
But he has since adopted the approach in his native village of Mwenekabwe, in the northern district of Karonga, on a quest to save its fast-depleting forest and help locals make money.
“When I came here, I noticed most trees had been cut down and the land was bare,” said Kabaghe, now a 36-year-old community health worker. “Yet the trees are also everything to the people, including their use for firewood and medicine.”
Many of the trees that covered this mountainous region have been cut down illegally for fuel, as in other parts of Malawi.
Little more than a tenth of its 17 million people are connected to the national electricity grid.
Even among those who have grid power, few can afford to use it for cooking, leaving them reliant on firewood and charcoal and adding to the strain on local forests.
Globally, deforestation is recognised as a major driver of biodiversity loss, climate change and damage to the natural services provided by ecosystems, such as hydrological cycles that are essential for rainfall and water supplies.
Malawi is losing an estimated 33,000 hectares (81,545 acres) of forest per year, a problem caused mainly by agricultural expansion and the use of wood as fuel to cure tobacco and burn bricks, according to researchers at Japan’s Hokkaido University.
Kabaghe said he was initially afraid to set up the green-painted, wooden coffin-like beehives in the forest and along rivers, unsure of how people would react.
Eventually he partnered with a friend who knew the local community, and they started with four hives.
“At first people were laughing at us, saying where could we find bees to fill the hives? They thought we were out of our minds but after three days, a swarm of bees came in,” he said.
The duo managed to harvest honey worth about $100 in 2017, their first year. They have since added more hives, which cost roughly $15 each, and now have about 20, earning $300 last year.
But they have come up against challenges, such as resistance from those who used to cut down local trees, said Kabaghe.
“Some people were threatening us after they couldn’t access the areas where there were beehives,” he said.
“But we noticed this is a plus to us as it means our mission to save the environment is bearing fruit,” he added.
Areas without beehives have hundreds of tree stumps - a sign of deforestation - whereas rivers and other places where the hives are situated are green with trees and vegetation.
Today, even chiefs and traditional leaders have started to appreciate the initiative.
To gain local trust, Kabaghe and his colleague shared their honey with community members, especially those living close to the hives, and have invited some to join their group.
As the area’s forest has started growing back, their lives have changed for the better, said Kabaghe. He has now bought some livestock and can help his family more with money, sustainably harvested wood and natural medicines.
Chifundo Dalireni, Lilongwe branch manager for the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, urged other parts of the country to adopt a similar approach to protecting forests.
In communities where beekeeping is practiced, little or no deforestation is taking place, he said - but they are still getting very limited support.
“The issue of deforestation is very serious in the country due to high population which increases demand for forest products, weak forest laws, poor coordination ... and high poverty levels,” he said.
Greater political will was needed to address the problem as well as more government resources, he added.
Malawi’s ministry of agriculture did not respond to a request for comment.
Communities living around the Chimwana and Majete forests near Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi, meanwhile, have demonstrated the potential of beekeeping to benefit the environment and incomes on a larger scale.
After witnessing tree-cutting and bushfires, 10 residents of Kuwirwi-Utoto village formed a committee to promote the regrowth of local forests through beekeeping and acquired six hives.
After securing a community development grant of $25,000 from the United Nations Development Programme, they bought 150 more beehives and distributed them to 15 groups of 300 people each.
The honey is processed traditionally by hand, packed in recycled plastic bottles and sold locally.
According to Audney Nkhata, a founding member of the group, the initiative has led to the regeneration of more than 25 square kilometres (9.65 square miles) of forest.
“At first you couldn’t see any trees, as fishermen used to cut them down for firewood to preserve their fish,” said Nkhata, pointing to a large piece of land overgrown with trees.
"Now they either have to endure attacks from the bees or face the law." (Reporting by Charles Pensulo; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org/climate)