Tension has engulfed Chitakale Plantation in Mulanje following the arrest of 16 individuals, including a village head, suspected of stealing property worth K620 million and injuring security guards.
The suspects, all from Kumwamba Village in Traditional Authority Mabuka, were apprehended Wednesday night after dozens of riot police from the South East Region police headquarters in Luchenza their homes which border the plantation.
Hewage points at some of the confiscated timber
For the past few days, the plantation’s headquarters (Smallholder Tea Estate Company—Steco) at Chitakale and some parts of the agricultural estate have been under heavy presence of armed police.
During the night operation, police confiscated from the suspects hundreds of planks and logs of pine and blue gum trees which were illegally harvested from the plantation owned by business tycoon Leston Mulli.
Deputy Commissioner of Police responsible for South East Region Stain Chaima said in an interview, the special operation was necessitated after Mulanje Police Station efforts yielded moderate impact.
This came after Mulanje police officers fired tear gas on Monday to disperse daring thieves who were defiantly felling trees in in the plantation’s forest reserve.
Explained Chaima: “The local police tried their efforts and arrested the perpetrators. Unfortunately, these unscrupulous communities were heavily armed with pangas, machetes, axes, stones and other dangerous weapons so the impact was very little.”
He, however, expressed concern that one of the suspects, a village headwoman was organising the criminal activities instead of working with the police to bring sanity to her community.
Chaima said besides felling the trees for timber and logs, the suspects also stole farm animals as well as injured some police officers and security guards.
Steco operations manager Ajith Hewage disclosed that preliminary findings indicate that about 64 hectares of pine and 20 hectares of blue gum trees have been illegally harvested at Chitakale Plantation over the past few months.
He said: “The estimated cost of 64 hectares of pine trees is K500 million while for the 20 hectares blue gum trees is K120 million.”
Hewage also disclosed that after Mulanje Police arrested some initial suspects, some community members descended on the plantation and set on fire two and a half hectares of tea.
“Every day they fell trees for wood resources, injure our guards, damage our offices, steal different company property including livestock like chickens, goats and not long ago they killed two cows.”
He said the massive theft, property damage and the prevailing environment led the company to stop its operations and the workforce has been downscaled to about 400 from the established 2 500.
“So, roughly, we are losing about K20 million every day through vandals as well as failure to operate and process black tea.”
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