Malawi meets Malthus?


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If you wanted to pick a place where population growth caused deforestation, Malawi seems like a pretty good candidate. With four times more people per square kilometer than Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, of whom four fifths depend on agriculture, population puts more pressure on Malawi’s resources than in many other African countries. On average, each farmer has only one hectare and the estate sector holds only a small portion of the land. Thus, the big farmers are not responsible for most of the deforestation. The population grows 3.2% per year and in many regions farmers have no way to expand their operations except to encroach upon the forest reserves.

’Agricultural Land Expansion and Deforestation in Malawi’ by I. Minde, D. Ngugi, J. Luhanga, and G. Kowero tells this rather Malthusian story. But it does not stop there. The authors make it clear that population growth alone cannot fully explain deforestation, even in Malawi. Using original household survey data from three regions, they show that average farm size grew substantially between 1992 and 1996. This non-population related agricultural expansion put additional pressure on forests. Government decisions to liberalize maize markets and other agricultural policies contributed to that growth.

The paper also allows us to put Malawi’s more Malthusian deforestation patterns in comparative perspective. Malawi’s 8.5 million people clear about 50,000 hectares of forest each year. This implies each rural family deforests about one hectare every thirty five years. Think about how much a Brazilian cattle rancher or an Indonesian oil palm company might clear in the same period.

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Further reading

If you would like to comment on this or request an electronic copy of the paper, please write Godwin Kowero at