In the Misuku Hills, located in the eastern part of Chitipa district of northern Malawi, six villages are working towards regenerating this mountainous landscape and aim to in the process improve their livelihoods. These six villages fall under Chief TA Mwenemisuku and is managed by the Kakomo Area Development Committee (ADC).
The villages are supported by three organisations that work together and provide different types of expertise to the project. Development Technical Assistance Services (DeTAS), SCOPE Malawi and Temwa Sustainable Community Development Organisation are joint facilitators of the process.
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), which have been recognized as some of the world’s Key Biodiversity Areas. This area comprises a series of ridges with steep slopes that have highly erodible soils.
Decades of poor agricultural and forestry practices has transformed the landscape and has now made it difficult for communities to thrive in that area. This is a high rainfall area with steep mountain slopes, so the replacement of indigenous forests with pine plantations created massive soil erosion and the land has become degraded as a result. The replacement of banana polyculture farming systems so suitable to farming on steep land, with maize farming, further exacerbated erosion and loss of topsoil. The switch from this diverse farming system to the monocropping of maize meant people have lost their culture and traditions that were intricately linked to their knowledge on how to cultivate the land and protect the forest. Crops and seed varieties were 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, 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 long 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 taking care of the soil, recovering their seeds and rehabilitate the forest.
There are three evergreen forests in the area that are relatively intact and that provide water and opportunities for beekeeping and possibly tourism. This pristine forest nearby is the template for the villages on how a landscape must be regenerated and on the importance of diversity. This forest provides an image that can be mimicked and is important for igniting and sustaining the vision of these communities.
Key to this process is dialogue and processes that will support the people in the villages to come up with a vision and a plan they are happy to implement. Ensuring community ownership of the process can take a long time but the facilitators in this project know that it is essential and have implemented activities towards this goal.
Firstly, many stakeholder dialogues were held within and between the six village communities until they became committed to work together. Once there was a commitment a participatory community mapping process was done with the communities to assist them identifying their key problems, its causes and also solutions they could implement to start changing their environment. This has established a baseline that will enable them to track change.
From the very 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 them. These young people are now 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, but there were little skills or knowledge about this approach in the community and their traditional way of looking after the landscape was now lost. So, John Nzira from UKUVUNA based in South Africa was invited to work with the people in assessing the extent of landscape degradation; SCOPE Malawi trained the villages and their leaders in Integrated Land Use Design (ILUD) and 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.
Since the ILUD trainings two of the communities have started food forests and developed their own action plans which they are implementing.
Such an ambitious project is not without challenges and as could be predicted 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. It means engaging leaders of a range of interest groups and mediating between clashing interests. For example, the communal grazing area between the villages are very contested and requires high level dialogue to ensure cooperation.
In Malawi the government promotes and spends much money effort into subsidizing packages of fertilizers and hybrid maize seed and this makes it very difficult to shift the cropping pattern and diets from maize to a more diverse, better adapted and more nutritious farming and food system.