The Warm Heart of Africa

I worked with the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi and found that I had to link environmental and wildlife issues with social and economic ones. People have little money and so rely on the natural environment to provide them with essential food and resources. As with all countries in the south, issues of HIV/AIDS, education and population give rise to much needed development work. Development work comes in two categories: sustainable and unsustainable. Unsustainable projects happen when money is thrown at the project, putting in infrastructure and then paying experts large wages to carry out the work. Targets are set and it does not matter how you achieve them as long as you play the numbers game; quality seems to get lost somewhere along the way. I was surprised to find that participants are paid to attend workshops, so that the project can hit its targets and get a large number of people attending. Often this means that the most influential person in an org-anisation or village attended and not the most appropriate. When you are offered more than a month’s salary for one day in a workshop, who could blame them? After the workers leave, projects that play the numbers game, rather than the quality game, tend to collapse, leaving a legacy of another failed project. These failures were noticed by some organisations and led to the development of Sustainable Natural Resource Management (SNRM) and Income Gener-ating Activities (IGAs). They have become favoured’ buzz-words for the donors. Favoured because they are successful and reach the people directly, getting the aid money where it is needed. They reduce the poverty of the community by increasing income, relieving pressure on the natural resources so that they can be harvested sustainably. What was my role in all this? I was working with community groups and school wildlife clubs to develop environmental educational materials. The schools were always very excited to explore their environment, identify environmental problems and explore different ways to help solve the problems. Ten years ago the people of Malawi were given the right to vote. They voted in Dr Bakili Maluzi as their president and for the first time were told that the natural re-sources were theirs. However, what was not explained was that they were theirs to have and to manage. Now, villagers are noticing the rapid changes in their environment, the loss of trees, the lack of fish, the common floods, but do not know what to do about it. The education materials gave them the tools to explore the causes of the environmental problems and look for new ways or alternatives to reduce the impact. Take deforestation, for example, this is happening at an alarming rate. Easy enough, the solution is to plant treesÖ or is it? They have been planting trees for 25 years and still have deforestation. When you ask why the trees are being cut down, you find that there are many reasons. The wood is used for fires, as timber and planks, to fire bricks for new houses, to smoke fish to preserve them for sale in the cities and some areas are cleared in order to open up new areas for cultivation.

So, what can they do? To cook, they can build and use fuel-efficient stoves that require less wood and in cities they can make fire briquettes out of waste paper. Solar cookers are a good idea but not always the solution. They need money to buy them and the less expensive solar cookers are more like ovens ñ very different when you are used to cooking on an open fire. They can use alternative fuels such as paraffin, electricity or gel-fuel’ made from ethanol. This is where IGAs such as making jam, juice, drying mangoes or other fruit, and making paper come in handy. It gives them enough money to buy these fuels. In addition, with negotiation with the village headman an area could be allocated as a wood-lot. The wood-lot could be planted with species that grow quickly and harvested on a regular basis. Each of these help to reduce their need for fuel wood. Why do they need to clear new areas for cultivation? Traditionally, when there was less population pressure, farmers shifted when the land was tired, but now this is not possible. Each year the land is burnt to renew it, destroying nutrients and organic matter, leaving just phosphorus. The burn usually happens during the hot season to encourage the rains but an early burn damages the soil much less as the burn is much cooler. Demonstrating com-posting and the importance of organic matter in the soil for moisture and nutrient retention helps crops. It also reduces the reliance on starter packs of seeds and fertiliser given generously by agri-businesses. Often the yields from these starter packs are excellent: the farmer saves the seed for the next year and then, because they cannot afford the fertiliser and it is a second generation, the yield is low and the family goes hungry. Funwe Farm recognised this problem and has helped their farmers produce a strong and healthy seed at a reasonable price that just requires healthy soil to produce a good crop for a number of years.

The young and the old in Malawi are all looking to find solutions to their immediate problems. Sustainable Natural Resource Management and Permaculture help people in countries from the South to help themselves. They give them the tools to analyse their own problems and then to develop their own solutions ñ ones that work for them. In this way they become more independent and are able to develop sustainably, in the true sense of the word.

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