Ex-cons for conservation: Can prison actors save Malawi's national tree from extinction?

The Mulanje cedar, Malawi's national tree, is on the verge of extinction. A drama group comprised entirely of ex-prisoners is making a last bid to save it.

A group of 15 men climb to the plateau of Mount Mulanje in Malawi, bent beneath enough supplies to spend ten days on the mountain.

Coming the other way, men balancing vast timbers on their heads totter barefoot down the steep paths in a cloud of sweat and resin. The wood they are carrying fell many years ago and, being slow to rot, has lain amongst the leaf litter ever since. It is virtually all that remains of former forests of Malawi's national tree.

The Mulanje cedar is endemic to Mount Mulanje, a massif of several hundred square kilometers rising 3,000 meters (9,850 feet) above the tea plantations in the south of Malawi, the poorest country in Africa.

In 1893, Lieutenant Sclater of the British Army recorded a "magnificent forest of cedars" with a canopy reaching 40 meters high. Cedar was also a magnificent building material, highly sought for construction and shipbuilding. The British began logging two years later.

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Since Malawi gained independence in 1964, private enterprise has all but finished what the colonialists began. Just seven mature cedars remain on the mountain.

From prisoner solidarity to eco-awareness

The men scaling the mountain to find these last trees belong to a theater group comprised entirely of former prisoners. They have all served long sentences, for crimes ranging from burglary to rape. Many were only recently released.

Conditions in prison were terrible. The men were forced to sleep back to back with no room to lie down and were kept inside from afternoon until morning.

One of them, Gaspar Phiri, who had also introduced church services to the prison where he was being held, and was acting as the resident priest there, decided they needed a focus. 

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"I talked to the other guys, I said we cannot just stay idle, let's do something," he told DW.

He started a drama group, which became so prestigious that inmates were allowed out on parole to tour the country.

In 2008, a national arts organization heard about the prisoners' performances and set up the Nkhokwe Arts theater company for prisoners who wanted to continue performing after their release. Not only do the actors earn some extra income, they have a reason to stay clean: Re-offenders may not rejoin the group.

After a play they performed in other jails to educate inmates about their bail rights, they set their sights on the cedar.

A national symbol comes to life

The group lived on Mulanje for a week and a half. Before the journey, many were scared of the spirits said to haunt the mountain. None of them knew quite what to expect.

"It was all just reports from people telling me that the mountain is full of trees, it's evergreen, so beautiful up there," said Chimwemwe Foster, who plays a logger in the production. Instead, they found a barren grassland stripped of wildlife.

Looking down from the Mulanje Plateau

The actors met the chronically underfunded handful of men from the Forestry Department tasked with policing the entire mountain. They also met illegal loggers attempting to scrape a living in a region where jobs are scarce, and who are now turning their attention to other trees as the cedar is all but gone.

The former prisoners understand what it means to live on the breadline, to scramble and fall foul of the law to survive. "These villagers are just eating the leftovers from the table," Phiri came to realize. "Those people who are above, in power, they are the ones who did this."

The group heard how rainfall patterns had altered since the tree cover was lost. Many are farmers, and this resonated with them too.

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They channelled their empathy into their acting, and found themselves changing how they thought about the mountain. Before, they had seen Mulanje as a place only for tourists.

The actors channel what they have learned about life in Mulanje into rehersals

Actor Peter Kungwa plays the last remaining cedar. "After this experience," he said, "the mountain is a place where I can stay now. Because of this project I'm the first person taking care of the trees. I'm trying now to replant some other trees around my home."

For Kungwa and his castmates, the Mulanje cedar is no longer an abstract national symbol, but integral to a living, breathing ecosystem. It is also the tangible heritage of all their country's people and unless something changes rapidly, their children will be denied that heritage. "Seeing," said Maxwell Makande, another of the actors, "is believing."

Spreading the word

After two weeks of rehearsals back in Blantyre, Malawi's second-largest city, the crew set out on a tour of the villages in the foothills of Mulanje. Tensions were high, after a villager was shot by a member of the Forestry Department just weeks before.

The troupe ascends Sapitwa, Malawi's highest peak

The play refocused the story of the cedars' demise from one of poor people poaching to make ends meet, to explore the role played by the British Empire, as well as Malawian officials paid to look the other way, and politicians clearing the path for illegal cargoes of cedar to be sold abroad.

Read more: Corruption fueling deforestation in Cambodia 

"It's the first time any group has come here to discuss the environment," said a man in the audience in the village of Nkhanda. "Others who didn't get it before now, after seeing the play they will understand the truth."

In keeping with the tradition of politically engaged "Theater of the Oppressed," the action was regularly stopped for the audience to comment on what they saw happening on stage: If they recognized what they saw; how characters taking different actions might result in a different outcome.

The actors take to the stage in Malawi's second-largest city, Blantyre

Because other outcomes are possible. On Zomba Plateau, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Mount Mulanje, cedars planted in nurseries a century ago now stand 40 meters tall. Opportunities for work on pine plantations for those that live around Zomba have ensured the cedars' protection.

Following performances in Malawi's major cities, the play continues to tour the country and has been invited to parliament. But if these former prisoners can ignite feeling for the rare trees in their fellow Malawians, it will be just the first step.

The Mulanje cedar can only be brought back from the precipice of extinction by taking on corruption and lifting Mulanje's communities out of poverty.

Tembo Chanyenga, who heads the project on Zomba, sees the cedar as a gift from God. "I think this is a time to look forward as far as this species is concerned," he told DW. "And if there's a group of people that can be the drivers of change then we can turn things around."

The expedition and performance were supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society.

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