Saving the Mulanje Cedar

Malawi’s national tree has all but disappeared. Can it be brought back?

IN THE PREDAWN DARKNESS of 3 a.m., I met Kingsley Mmambo, a hiking guide, along with two other men from his village in Likhubula, Malawi, on an abandoned stretch of dirt road, the forest silent save for the low thrum of chattering insects. The men, Felix, 28, and Fadison, 35, illegally harvest the prized wood of Mulanje cedar trees to sell to furniture makers and craftsmen in the region.

“Ten years ago, the cedar wasn’t that hard to find; you didn’t need to get up so early,” Mmambo told me as we walked along a steep and slick mud trail under a sky of sparkling stars. “But now it has been depleted, and you have to go farther to find it.” The cover of darkness also allowed Fadison and Felix to elude any forest rangers that might stop them during the day. No one seemed nervous; they simply put their heads down and trudged forward at a brisk, even pace.

Four hours, six miles, and 4,000 vertical feet later, we reached the Lichenya Plateau, in the heart of the Mulanje Massif. The 640-square-kilometer cluster of mountains, with 62 named peaks and myriad granite walls soaring over 3,000 feet in height, is an anomaly in the Malawian landscape. The massif rises so abruptly from the plains that it creates its own weather — the temperature had dropped 20 degrees during our trek, and we were now in thick fog. The basins and plateaus within the massif’s center are also home to an estimated 300 to 500 endemic or near-endemic species. These qualities have led to its reputation as an “Island in the Sky” — a biodiversity hotspot in the Warm Heart of Africa, as Malawi is known.

“Ten years ago, the cedar wasn’t that hard to find.”

Having donned jackets to stay warm, Fadison and Felix took machetes from their packs and started swiping their way into a dense patch of jungle. Mmambo and I followed, until we reached a small clearing the size of a one-car garage. Fadison, about six feet tall and built like a linebacker, crouched down and lifted some low-slung branches. Hidden beneath was what we’d come for: a charred piece of wood lying on the ground, maybe 10-feet long and two-feet thick at its widest. Fadison had secreted it away after finding it earlier in the week.

The Mulanje cedar, Malawi’s national tree, will grow wild only on the flanks of this massif. Prized for its sweet-smelling, termite-resistant wood, the cedar’s numbers began dwindling at the turn of the millennium, due to illegal logging and wildfires. In the past decade, logging accelerated. In 2013 and 2014, scientists estimated there were about 64,000 mature cedars in the wild. Two years later, they could only find seven. Today? None. Fragments of fallen timber are all that remain, a heartbreaking fact for Mmambo, who takes pride in the beauty of his home. But it’s not just a despoiled landscape or the loss of this lone tree that’s on the line. The Mulanje cedar is a keystone species. If it disappears, so will other plant and animal species that depend on it. The cedar’s decline has led to greater soil erosion, which in turn has led to more — and more destructive — flash flood events; in 2016, such floods killed 18 people.

Fadison, wearing a tattered shirt and sweatpants, took a crude handmade axe the length of his forearm from within his pack, straddled the charred trunk, and began chipping away at the blackened wood, revealing khaki-colored cedar. “I’d stop doing this if I could find another way to feed my family,” he said, as he hacked away. He has three children, ages 13, 9, and 1. Felix has two of his own, 7 and 3. Harvesting and selling the cedar, even the scraps that remain, provides their only income. From the pieces they returned to town with later that evening, 15 hours after we’d left, they estimated they would net 10,000 kwacha, about $10, between the two of them. What with having to work in their village farms, too, and the toll of the work, they can only get out rarely. They each earn about 200,000 kwacha per year for their logging efforts, a pittance even given the incredibly low annual income of Malawi, which in 2021 averaged only $642.

Yet, despite the dismal situation — for the trees and the people who scavenge their remains — elaborate efforts are underway, both to save the Mulanje cedar and to engineer a more sustainable and less detrimental means of earning a living. At stake is not only the tree, but the future of the Mulanje Massif, itself a key to a way of life.

WALKING INTO THE Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT) building, situated along the main road in the town of Mulanje, one is greeted by the same sweet cedar smell emanating from the stalls in Likhubula of local craftsmen selling carved animal figurines and boxes. The doors of all the offices in MMCT are made from the selfsame Mulanje cedar — a seemingly strange incongruity given that saving the cedar from extinction is MMCT’s raison d’etre.

Ibrahim Mitole, MMCT’s director of biodiversity, welcomed me and showed me into his office. Mitole, 32, dressed in gray jeans and a button-down flannel, is a spindly man. He’s from Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, and recently completed his master’s dissertation on tropical forestry. Anxiety-inducing piles of binders and papers — all of which were already in the office when he arrived in 2017 — filled the shelves. Topographic maps of the Mulanje Massif papered the walls. Out the east-facing windows, the water-streaked cliffs of Lichenya Mountain — where I’d been with Felix and Fadison just the day before — disappeared into clouds.

After niceties, Mitole led me into a grassy yard adjacent to the building. In a landscaped area beside the road, he pointed out several lone trees, about head high. They looked like firs.

Malawi's Mulanje Massif

In the shadow of the Mulanje Massif, most Malawians barely scrape by, driving some to poach timber. A day-long trip to harvest the wood can net about $10, though the cedar sells for up to $8,000 per cubic meter. Photo by Kiran Kallur.

“Is this a Mulanje cedar?” I asked, still having never seen a live one of any age. “I thought this was too low of an elevation for them to grow.”

“We thought so, too,” said Mitole, “but they are doing well.” These trees were just a few years old, too young by decades for loggers to be interested in them yet.

The trust has pursued a host of concurrent strategies to save the cedar, from mass planting to translocations and community outreach. But just as MMCT, which was founded in 2002, is still learning new things about the tree, it is also learning which tactics are most effective in saving it. To understand any efforts to save the cedar, one must understand the roots of its current plight.

In the early 1900s, when Malawi was still a British colony known as Nyasaland, the cedar was prized for its sturdiness, aroma, plentifulness, and termite-resistant qualities; it was the timber of choice in the country. The British had established the Mulanje Forest Reserve on almost 140,000 acres in 1927, ostensibly for conservation purposes, but in reality, probably to “exploit the plateau’s resources,” according to a 2007 paper in Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation. Around 1950, it became clear that there were insufficient cedar supplies to meet demand. The government planted groves of pine and other exotic tree species within the massif to help provide the timber needed and to relieve pressure on the cedar. The government also made it illegal to harvest Mulanje cedar without obtaining one of a few official land concessions to do so. But this system did little to stop the problem.

“If the cedar were to disappear, you would start to lose other species. It will create a domino effect.”

In the aughts, the “wheels started coming off,” Carl Bruessow, MMCT’s executive director, told me over a Zoom call this fall. Those who were awarded concessions to harvest a certain number of dead trees — oftentimes politicians looking to make what they saw as “easy money” — harvested many more living ones as well, he said. Illicit lumberjack gangs roamed the massif, clear-cutting entire swathes of forest, cedar and otherwise, with no regard for the age or condition of the trees they took. “Whenever there was any law enforcement action to try to counter it, either from the police or the forestry department, there was political interference,” said Bruessow, 60, who was born in Cape Town, South Africa, but moved to Malawi, where his White settler family had lived for generations, when he was 6 years old. MMCT organized patrols to try to stop trucks carrying untold numbers of cedar planks, only to find that some of the vehicles actually belonged to the aforementioned politicians.

Then things got really bad. Between 2010 and 2015, there was what Bruessow called a “wholesale ransacking of the mountain’s cedar.” Driving the frenzy was the astronomical price the wood could fetch. According to Bruessow, on the rare wood market Mulanje cedar was going for $5,000 to $8,000 per cubic meter. Without any enforcement mandate, MMCT had little recourse to stop the plunder.

The ultimate destination for all of the timber was unknown. However, Bruessow heard that much of it went to the Middle East for smart-looking dhows — traditional sailing vessels in the region — as cedar is a “good boat-building wood.” A miniscule amount remained in Malawi. The cedar’s “decline was as dramatic as you can imagine,” Bruessow said of those five years, thanks to the combination of government corruption, non-enforcement of logging quotas by the Department of Forestry, and the economic incentive for local villagers to continue cutting down the trees. (The carved cedar doors I saw in MMCT had been commissioned from local craftsmen in 2006. “Those guys are brilliant carvers and carpenters,” Bruessow said. “The amount of cedar they use in comparison to what disappeared is almost negligible, and we always wanted to support them.”)

“Ecologically, the cedar is — was — the dominant species in the cloud forest, which is the forest above 2,000 meters,” Bruessow said. “Our main assumption is that, if the cedar were to disappear, you would start to lose other species. And if we start to lose even one or two species, it will create a domino effect that will probably cause total loss of the ecology here.”

MMCT spearheaded the first of several projects to combat this distinctly anthropogenic extinction. Beginning in 2004, the organization began planting batches of cedar seedlings up on the mountain, averaging 15,000 per year. They grew the seedlings in several nurseries secluded high up in Mulanje itself. But there were unforeseen issues. “The survival rate was too low,” Mitole told me. The dramatic loss of older and taller cedars was, at least in part, to blame: Without the protective canopy provided by the old-growth forest, harsh frosts led to massive die-offs among the younger plants. It was also a numbers problem. Planting 15,000 new trees per year wasn’t enough.

Mulanje Massif cloud forest

The Mulanje cedar was once the dominant species in the Mulanje Massif cloud forest. Today there are no mature trees left in the wild. Photo by DJ Cockburn.

So Bruessow and MMCT launched other initiatives to combat the cedar’s disappearance from as many angles as possible. Several translocation trials, still ongoing, involved planting cedar saplings from different seed sources (from different spots on the mountain) in various places around the country, such as Zomba Mountain, 40 miles northeast of Mulanje.

“We are trying to understand the different conditions present at all these sites and looking at the cedar’s growth rate to see what is surviving across all sites and where they’re doing better,” Mitole said.

But all the potential fixes, including the nurseries on the mountain and the translocations, had one shared problem: They failed to remedy the conditions that led to the cedar’s demise in the first place.

“Scavengers of old cedar, they’re not only going to take the stumps and dead logs,” Mitole said. “Considering that the big cedars are no longer available for them to harvest, they will go after younger trees. We have even seen the trees that were replanted only 15 or 20 years ago being chopped by the harvesters.” Those six-foot high trees out front of MMCT, I realized, might not be safe for long.

With that in mind, MMCT sought a two-pronged approach that involved not only planting new trees, but also effecting a new cultural paradigm.

THREE DAYS AFTER VENTURING up into the center of the massif, I found myself walking along narrow ochre-colored dirt paths between brick huts. Each dwelling was made from the same red earth beneath my feet. I was following Ruth Kalonda, the proprietor of the Hikers Nest, my guest house in Likhubula, who had offered to bring me to the nearby Nakhonyo Nursery. Nestled behind a cluster of houses and streets off the main dirt drag, Nakhonyo is one of five community-run cedar nurseries in Mulanje District.

There I met Daiton Rabson, the chairman of the Nahkonyo Management Cedar Group. Wearing a purple T-shirt and off-white canvas pants, Rabson flitted about beneath a trellis shading row upon row of cedar seedlings. He alternately weeded and watered the near-neon green plants, potted in black plastic bags. Though a far cry from the 150-footers blanketing the Mulanje Massif only 25 years ago, these six-inch baby cedars, of which Nakhonyo Nursery currently has 15,600, are key to saving the tree.

man carving a box out of Mulanje cedar

Mulanje cedar is prized for its wood, which can be crafted into furniture and other valuable goods.

mulanje cedar community nursery

A community nursery program in the district, which offers employment opportunities, hopes to help local Malawians have a better understanding of the cedar’s precarious future. Photos by Michael Levy.

MMCT piloted the community nursery program back in 2016. Integrating its conservation work into the community would, they reasoned, lead to a better local understanding of the cedar’s precarious future. And if Nahkonyo was any indication, that was working.

“We hope these trees stay there” once they are replanted up on the mountain, Rabson told me as he went about his work. “When these trees are older, I hope there will be better laws to deal with people harvesting cedars.”

An even more fundamental role of the nurseries is that the communities derive concrete economic benefits from them. Rabson is not paid directly for his work; rather, MMCT gives Nakhonyo Nursery the supplies (seeds and potting materials) and know-how to cultivate the baby trees. When the seedlings are old enough to be transplanted onto the mountain, at about six months to a year old, MMCT will buy them. Last year, Rabson sold each seedling for 700 kwacha, he said, and Nahkonyo Nursery unloaded 18,000 trees in total. When divided among everyone involved with the nursery — eight people at present — that’s approximately $1,575 per person, a very healthy annual salary by local standards. The trust also pays other members of the community to help with transplantation: It takes a lot of manpower to carry as many as 150,000 seedlings up a mountain and dig as many holes.

A community nursery and conservation planting program may not itself be innovative; similar initiatives have been used around the world, from Bhutan to Madagascar to China to Uganda. But what MMCT tries next will take things to a whole different level. Expanding upon the underlying philosophy of the community nurseries, MMCT is preparing for its most audacious plan yet: It is applying for overall management control of the Mulanje Forest Reserve. Bruessow said that, for the past 18 months, he and the staff have been in talks with the government to take over the management concession of the 140,000 acres that make up the reserve from the Department of Forestry. This would allow the trust to continue its current conservation programs, but also give it the mandate to oversee such things as tourism, law enforcement, and infrastructure-development programs in the area. Under the auspices of such a public-private partnership, MMCT would have a time-limited contract giving it full responsibility for running the Mulanje Forest Reserve, from setting goals to implementing strategy, and would be answerable to the Malawian government, but the geographical area would remain state land.

“We are looking at some projects right now that would benefit many thousands of people, whether through electricity access or irrigation,” Bruessow told me. “It’s that kind of thinking that we need. Engaging more with the local communities, looking at their needs, getting them involved in the collaborative management programs on the mountain.” On the law enforcement front, MMCT is unlikely to start sending heavily armed patrols out to deter the Fadisons and Felixes on Mulanje’s slopes. “We would not be a typical management law enforcement agency,” Bruessow said. “This will be very much about using community policing forums and working with a lot of the community structures to improve management.”

“When these trees are older, I hope there will be better laws to deal with people harvesting cedars.”

If MMCT does get the Mulanje Forest Reserve management concession, the trust will function similarly to African Parks, a nonprofit conservation organization founded in 2000 that manages 22 safari and game reserves in Africa on behalf of the parks’ host countries. In fact, African Parks manages several game reserves in Malawi too, notably Liwonde National Park, which it has run since 2015. Under African Parks’ purview, Liwonde has undergone an ecological renaissance, and the surrounding communities have seen major economic benefits — precisely the one-two punch that MMCT is looking for to help save the cedar.

“Fifteen years ago, I visited Liwonde for the first time, and didn’t see much of anything,” Mike Wendel, a manager of Kuthengo Camp, a private safari accommodation within the 548-square-kilometer Liwonde, told me when I visited last July. But these days, the ecosystem is flourishing after African Parks’ surgically precise and calculated reintroductions of several species, including cheetahs (2017), lions (2018), black rhinos (2019), and wild dogs (2021).

Even more relevant to the problem facing Mulanje are the statistics surrounding African Parks’ crackdown on wildlife poaching in Liwonde: In 2017, for example, park rangers arrested 79 poachers. And those rangers? They’re local villagers. Between fulltime jobs and temporary roles, African Parks employs over 400 people from villages in the Liwonde region. The rangers have also removed over 50,000 snares since 2015. It’s jobs like this that could change the economic calculus for men like Fadison and Felix. If they can find steady jobs that will pay them more than the meager income they receive from harvesting cedar, maybe — just maybe — the cycle will end.

African Parks says it directly benefits as many as 18,000 community members living close to protected parklands in Malawi with “sustainable livelihood opportunities, from being able to participate in beekeeping, fisheries, agroforestry, and community guide cooperatives, to receiving livestock husbandry and veterinary assistance, to being able to sustainably harvest natural resources the parks provide.”

MMCT’s innovation, then, is to apply this same model for forest conservation. That means “being able to sustainably harvest natural resources the parks provide” — even with the dire outlook for the Mulanje cedar, Bruessow said. He believes there’s a future in which, after MMCT has taken over the concession to manage the Mulanje Forest Reserve, after the trees have recolonized Mulanje Massif and been permitted to grow to their dizzying heights of old, after a culture-wide understanding and appreciation for the cedar’s importance, the need to protect it, and to prevent logging has taken hold — after all that, there’s a future in which the Mulanje cedar can be logged in a responsible manner.

“It is a wood that has certain values unequaled by many others, and it is as economically important as it is ecologically important. I’m hoping that a generation will go past and the whole culture will be different, and some cedars will be able to be cut down and used for lumber. There was a livelihood here based on harvesting the cedar that could have been sustained,” Bruessow said, a wistfulness in his voice. “But corruption killed that livelihood. There’s no reason it couldn’t come back.”

All of that remains far off. Decades at least. But the seeds are being sown.

Ibrahim Mitole, the trust’s biodiversity director has no doubt the Mulanje cedar will make a comeback. “I’m 100 percent sure that it will survive,” he said. “More and more people are realizing the importance of the cedars. And they’re beautiful.”

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.