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COMPASS ll: Community Partnerships for Sustainable Resources Management in Malawi

by Portal Web Editor last modified Jan 10, 2013 12:09 PM FRAME

logo Creating business opportunities from natural resources Enabling rural households to earn substantial and guaranteed income from sustainable harvesting of natural resources is the key to biodiversity conservation in a densely populated country like Malawi. Major pressure on the resources can only be alleviated if the majority of people living close to those resources can earn a better long-term income from their conservation than through destructive exploitation.

Improving legal access to natural resources Guaranteed, legal access to the natural resources for local communities and the ability to restrict others from unsustainable use is a cornerstone of successful natural resources management. A sense of ownership, the right to influence and take part in resource management and long-term security are crucial. Through management agreements signed between community groups and government, supported by legislation, this is being achieved.

Providing skills and knowledge Communities and rural households need improved skills and much greater levels of understanding to be able to participate in management of natural resources. Government and NGO extension personnel also require a better grasp of this new paradigm, in which their role is changed from protector of the resource to co-worker with the resource users. Capacity building and longer-term technical service provision is being achieved through formal and informal village-based training and by equipping a cadre of private sector service providers who charge fees for their services, promoting sustainability.

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Biodiversity and development
The drive from Mulanje town, sheltered under the massive rock walls of Mulanje Mountain, a Global Biosphere Reserve, exceeding 3,000 m. above sea level, experiencing frost in winter, with a mosaic of grassland, bare rock, miombo woodland, evergreen forest and the Mulanje Cedar, and home to several endemic species of plant and animal, to Lengwe National Park, at a couple of hundred metres above sea level, hot and flat mopane woodland and grassland, home to the Nyala antelope, takes just two hours. By road the distance is some 120 Km. but only 80 as the crow flies.

The contrast is extreme but illustrates why Malawi, only 72,000 Km2 including its lake, is home to an astonishing range of biological diversity. Geography places Malawi on the southern arm of the African Rift. Altitude ranges from over 3,000 m. to just 50 m. above sea level. Summer temperatures in the lowlands exceed 400 C, while frost is common during the winter in many of the high altitude areas. Rainfall patterns, influenced by the ITCZ and southeasterly Mwera winds and by the mountains and the lake vary considerably over a very short distance.

Miombo woodland in several varieties is by far the most common natural vegetation type. However, various pockets and some larger areas of evergreen forest occur, throughout the country. These are frequently home to considerable biodiversity. Mukwazi Forest Reserve, in Nkhata Bay district, is the only known location globally for a species of damselfly, for example. The highlands of Nyika National Park and Mulanje Mountain are grasslands and flower pastures (the former an important apiary for local honey production). And of course Lake Malawi has one of the highest diversities of endemic fish, including the well-known Cichlids, of any fresh water body. The wildlife reserves and national parks, while not on the scale of those in neighboring countries, still contain within their relatively small area a wide variety of large mammals and birds and an unknown variety of smaller animals and plants. All have, sadly, been depleted by poaching over the past couple of decades, but serious efforts are now being made to protect them and assist regeneration.

Of course, in the major part of Malawi, natural vegetation has given way to farmland. High and growing population density is leading to land shortages in some areas, Poverty is both a result of and a cause of declining soil fertility and crop yields. The pressure on the remaining protected areas in Malawi and so the countries main store of biodiversity is increasing. The approach to development that gives local people a stake in continued conservation of natural resources and the opportunity to profit from their sustainable exploitation may not be a panacea, but without it Malawi’s biodiversity will be irretrievably damaged within a generation or two.


Providing skills and knowledge
Introducing new ideas to rural people automatically requires that their capacity to absorb, understand and profit from these ideas must be substantially enhanced. Perhaps the most fundamental change introduced widely through COMPASS is the role of rural communities – previously legally barred from much of the country’s remaining natural resources, having no control over the management of the resources, only able to scavenge for subsistence purposes, they are now gaining legal access, are being offered the opportunity to participate in management, including restricting access to “outsiders” and are able to profit substantially from marketing their natural resources-based products.

COMPASS has followed a variety of approaches to satisfy this need for capacity building.

  • Some formal classroom-based and both formal and informal village-based training, particularly for practical skills;
  • Live drama using local drama groups and bands has been successfully used to raise levels of awareness and understanding of the new paradigm;
  • Radio – and, to a lesser extent, television – has been a key element in raising awareness levels about the opportunities for natural resources-based business, particularly through a weekly radio broadcast called Chuma Chobisika or “Hidden Treasure”;
  • Study tours for groups – whether governance groups such as natural resources management associations or business groups – have proved an excellent method for peer group learning;
  • Two training portfolios have been produced under the title Malawi Gold Standard, one on honey production, one on pond aquaculture. The set comprises a trainers’ manual and producers handbook and a set of instructional DVDs;
  • A cadre of service providers has been trained on the Malawi Gold Standard Honey Production System. Many of these were individuals who sponsored themselves (the training course and the training documents were charged for) and have since established small businesses providing fee-based beekeeping services;
  • Appreciative enquiry was used as a basis for much of the capacity building efforts.

Capacity building has focused on:

  • Raising levels of awareness and understanding of the opportunities presented by community-based natural resources management;
  • Issues related to improved governance of natural resources, including group formation and the relevant skills;
  • Technical training in a wide variety of topics from community resource mapping to mushroom production;
  • Business related training including business management and financial management.

Target audiences are many and varied: community groups, traditional leaders, government and NGO technical service providers, small-scale commercial business groups, and other business people further along the value chain; bankers; women’s groups and so on. In a conservative culture where innovation is frowned on, changing the way people – whether rural families, local government staff or policy makers and businessmen - perceive and think about their natural resources is not an easy task. There remains much to be done. But is an intangible achievement of COMPASS that people’s understanding and awareness of natural resources as a long-term asset that can be managed for profit rather than a “common good” that must be exploited rapidly before someone else does is certainly higher now than four years ago.


Improving legal access to natural resources

Mr. A is a beekeeper in the Thazima Beekeeping Enterprise. In the past, through semi-formal arrangements with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife he has hung bee-hives in the grassland on the high plateau of Nyika National Park, from which a light delicious honey is produced. But his income was small and there was no incentive for him to assist the park officials with conservation of the habitat that support not only his beekeeping but a wealth of wildlife and one of Malawi’s premier tourist destinations.

“Now”, he says, “I have 75 beehives, 65 are colonized and I harvest an average of 60 Kg. of honey per year from each. I have a good market for my honey and I am part of a business group so we can help each other. We have a formal agreement with the government that allows us to harvest honey from within the park but we must also help the government to control poaching and reduce fires that not only damage the wildlife but our livelihood.” At a selling price of Two Hundred Malawi Kwacha per Kilogram (about US$ 1.40) he now earns over US$ 5,500 revenue in a year.

Much, although not all, of Malawi’s biodiversity and its natural resources are contained within protected areas – forest reserve, national parks and wildlife reserves. These areas are controlled and managed by the state. Access and extraction of resources from within them is illegal without a permit.

However, during the past decade the Malawi government has enacted legislation and developed policies that support the establishment of community-based natural resources management and provide the mechanisms for communities living close to natural resources to access and utilize these resources sustainably and legally.

Despite the existence of supportive legislation, little progress had been made towards its implementation before COMPASS II commenced. One constraint was the lack of incentives for local people to conserve the natural resources through good management and sustainable harvesting. The value of these resources was limited, since markets for them were fragmented and difficult for rural households to access. Furthermore, rent-seeking behavior by officials meant that access to the resources could be gained quite easily with a bribe – whether by a local woman collecting firewood or a Lilongwe timber merchant looking for hardwood planks. Law enforcement is also weak, the risks of being caught and sentenced acceptably low and, if caught, the penalties often manageable. The resources belonged to the State – so they belonged to everyone but nobody owned them.

COMPASS has been working to help local communities gain legal access to these resources, plus a level of ownership over them, by helping them take advantage of the existing legislation. Organizing communities into coherent groups – associations and business groupings; assisting the democratic election of committees to run these groups affairs and the preparation of constitutions for the groups to manage their affairs; developing co-management plans for the natural resources between communities and government; and helping the organizations gain legal identity through registration under the Laws of Malawi.

Not only do such groups gain legal access to their resources but they also have the right to limit, through issuing permits, for example, who can access these resources, a right that is essential for sustainable harvesting. The resources are no longer everyone’s. Legal rights of access and resource use provide the necessary sense of ownership to local communities.

For this approach to be successful, however, the products being harvested must have a value to the community greater than the continued over-exploitation of the resources as a whole. And the long-term outlook for the products’ market must instill confidence that conservation and sustainable harvesting will outweigh the short-term gains to be had from current unsustainable practice. This is being achieved by the establishment of small-scale commercialization of products such as honey and mushrooms.

There is also a need to build capacity across the spectrum of stakeholders, not only in the technicalities of production, institutional development and establishing a business but also to increase understanding of this new paradigm of development and biodiversity conservation.

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