Supported by DETAS
In the Misuku Hills, located in the eastern part of Chitipa district of northern Malawi, six villages are working towards regenerating this mountainous landscape. In the process they aim to improve their livelihoods. These six villages fall under Chief TA Mwenemisuku and is managed by the Kakomo Area Development Committee (ADC). About 1,300 men and women farmers participate in the project.
The villages are supported by three organisations that work together: Development Technical Assistance Services (DeTAS), SCOPE Malawi and Temwa Sustainable Community Development Organisation. Each provides a different type of expertise a as they jointly facilitate a landscape regeneration process across the six communities.
The area is on a plateau in the Misuku Hills, part of the Songwe river watershed, bordering the evergreen forest reserves Matipa (1055 ha), Wilindi (937 ha) and Mughese (771 ha). The areas are recognized as some of the world’s Key Biodiversity Areas. They comprise a series of ridges with steep slopes that have highly erodible soils.
Decades of poor agricultural and forestry practices has transformed the landscape and made it difficult for communities to thrive in it. . With high rainfall and steep mountain slopes. the areas have suffered massive soil erosion as indigenous forests were replaced with pine plantations. The land has become highly degraded. .
The replacement of banana polyculture farming systems so suitable to farming on steep land, with maize farming, has further exacerbated erosion and loss of topsoil. The switch from a once diverse farming system to the mono-cropping of maize has eroded the community’s cultural and traditional practices that were intricately linked to their knowledge of how to cultivate the land and protect the forest. Crops and seed varieties have been lost, including: several indigenous sweet potato varieties, black millets and several indigenous varieties of beans.
Land degradation has reached a crisis level in the area. The deforestation, soil erosion, and depletion of soil organic matter has now created a landscape scattered with abandoned, bare and unproductive fields. Within a landscape with so much potential, people are struggling to eke out a living on their farms and to feed themselves. A different way of engaging with this landscape has become urgent.
After a lengthen dialogue process with the six villages under Kakomo ADC, their leaders and other local stakeholders in the area, it was agreed that food security and household incomes can only be improved if the landscape around them is regenerated by improving the soil, recovering lost seeds and rehabilitating the forests.
There are three evergreen forests in the area that are relatively intact and that provide water and opportunities for beekeeping and possibly tourism. These pristine nearby forests are templates for the villages on how a landscape must be regenerated and diversity maintained. These forests provide an image that can be mimicked and is important for igniting and sustaining the vision for these communities.
Key to this process were dialogues and processes that supported the people in the villages to develop a vision and a plan they are happy to implement. Ensuring community ownership of the process has taken a long time but the facilitators in this project know that it is essential and have implemented activities with this purpose in mind .
Many stakeholder dialogues were held within and between the six village communities until people became committed to working together. Once there was commitment a participatory community mapping process was done with the communities to assist them in identifying their key problems, its causes and the solutions they could implement to start improving their natural environment. The mapping process has established a baseline that will enable the communities to track change.
From the beginning young people were actively engaged to be part of the project. This is really important because they are the future but often leave the area because they do not see any opportunities for themselves. Young people have now become interested and are exploring business opportunities that the project may generate.
From the onset it was clear that agroecological principles must inform this landscape work. However, agroecology skills and knowledge were limited and the community had lost their traditional way of looking after the landscape. John Nzira from UKUVUNA in South Africa was invited to work with people to assess the extent of landscape degradation. Then SCOPE Malawi trained the villagers and their leaders in Integrated Land Use Design (ILUD). A group of young people attended an ILUD training in Chimanimani, in Eastern Zimbabwe. They were also able to witness landscape regeneration practices in that equally hilly area.
Such an ambitious project is not without challenges. One of the biggest lessons has been the need to cultivate patience and perseverance because it can take a long time to convince all the relevant people in a community to support the process. It requires engaging leaders of a range of interest groups and mediating between clashing interests. For example, the communal grazing area between the villages are contested. Agreements required a number of high level dialogues to ensure cooperation.
In Malawi the government promotes and spends much money and effort in subsidising fertilisers and hybrid maize seed packages. This makes it difficult to shift the cropping pattern and diets from maize to a more diverse, better adapted and more nutritious farming and food system.