Mountain people in Malawi are getting together and putting structures in place in order to reach decision-makers, so they can influence the policies affecting them
10 / 2006
Could you introduce yourself and your work?
I work as an extension agent for the National Association of Smallholder Farmers of Malawi, based in Namwera, in the mountains on the Eastern side of Mangochi District, in Central Malawi. I work with four smallholder associations, which contain over 5,000 farmers, the majority living in mountains. My job involves providing the farmers with the skills to be able to solve their own problems, focusing on their agriculture activities, but also tackling other issues that affect the development of the community. I act as a facilitator, helping rural communities to analyse their problems and to find appropriate and viable solutions.
In your opinion, which are the main problems affecting your mountain community?
One of the major problem in the communities I work with is the lack or scarcity of infrastructure. Roads are badly maintained, schools and hospitals are far away from rural communities, so children and ill people have to walk long distances. Communications facilities are not in place, which makes the isolation of these communities more acute.
In terms of agriculture, the soils in the mountains are very poor, the top soil is very thin, and often has been washed away by erosion. Deforestation is a growing problem in our area, population increases have led to encroachment into forests, and timber extracted for firewood is not being replaced. Bare soil is also more susceptible to be washed away by rains, which results in lower fertility and land degradation. This is a nationwide problem, which especially affects the mountain areas in Malawi.
Which initiatives (that you represent) are being carried out at the moment that could improve the situation in the mountains?
The methodology that NASFAM uses to tackle the problems of infrastructure affecting the communities is to promote and involve the farmers in self-aid projects. For that, we mobilize the community to appreciate the problem; then the committees will discuss it and elaborate solutions. For example, if the community identifies that in a certain area there is a need for a primary school, after discussing about it, they may decide to make bricks, and to organize themselves to provide the labour and the resources to build the school.
Alongside the self-aid projects, the NASFAM extension agents act as representatives of the farmers and advocate for them at local and national government. Through the Government of Malawi’s decentralization programme, decisions on public expenditure are taken at district level. This is why it is so important that extension agents like me, who work directly with the mountain communities, attend the Area and District Development Committees. At those meetings we expose the issues affecting mountain people, particularly their specific needs of infrastructures (hospitals, schools, etc.), so the District Commissioner and the representatives from the different sectors of the government at district level (health, education, forestry, agriculture, etc.) can appreciate the problems and allocate funds for the initiatives that we are carrying out to improve the situation of these communities.
On the other hand, in order to tackle the problem of deforestation, NASFAM has developed a Natural Resource Management Programme, which is being implemented by the smallholders’ associations. The main objective of the programme is to encourage farmers to reforest degraded areas. Each association manages a tree nursery, and some farmers have started their own individual nurseries; this way they raise their own seedlings, which are planted once a year during a “national tree planting day”. NASFAM supports the programme by providing the seeds, and sometimes some funds to purchase seedlings.
I have been running this programme with the associations I work with over the past five years, and we are already seeing benefits. We encourage farmers to plant both, indigenous and exotic trees. Indigenous trees are essential to maintain original ecosystems and forest, and some of their fruits constitute a source of food; exotic trees are chosen because they grow fast, providing building materials and ensure the reforestation occurs over a short time frame. We normally use agro-forestry species because they are multi-purpose, as they provide fodder for animals and nutrients for the soil, as well as firewood.
Which actions do you think should be prioritized to improve the situation in your sector - at local, national and international level?
At the local level we believe that the people in the mountains are the ones that can solve their own problems, we can not just wait for the government to come and solve them for us. We must initiate our own programmes. There is a saying in Chichewa, our language, which is “the future belongs to the organized”, as we believe that if people get organized in a group, they are stronger to reach the decision-makers. That is why my association is organized in local committees, with their own structure, which are the driving force of the system. They use the extension agents like me to channel their demands to reach the government, and therefore be heard.
I believe it is crucial that mountain people get organized at local level, to get structures in place make them stronger and allow them to advocate for their own interests at a governmental level, either encouraging policies that benefit them or forcing policy changes.
At the regional level of Southern Africa, it is important that the organizations working with mountain people in the different countries create a network, to allow us to learn from other experiences and to support initiatives that are happening in other countries. And again, only those who are organized can achieve changes, and a strong regional organization of mountain communities can help us be stronger and influence policies at an ºinternational level.
What is your personal definition of mountain?
Mountain communities have a special attachment to their environment and, although they have been excluded from privileges and services that only reach the people in the lowlands, mountain people will always refuse to go away as they value the benefits, rather than the difficulties of living in the mountains.
How do you see the future?
My main message is that the people in the mountains are responsible for the solution of their problems, and for their development. We, people of the mountains, must be proactive and put together our efforts to protect and maintain the resources that we have, continuing with the activities and the direction that we are taking now. Only then, the mountain and the people that live there will have a future.
This interview has been realized by ALMEDIO Consultores with the support of the Charles-Léopold Mayer Fondation during the regional meeting organised by the World Mountain People Association - APMM.
Interview to Elisha KAKHOBWE, Extension agent of the National Association of Smallholder Farmers of Malawi (NASFAM), P.O. Box 1, Namwera, Mangochi District, MALAWI - Phone: (+265) 15 86 115/85 04 256 - nasfam [at] nasfam.org
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