By Gibson Mphepo

Women are said to be the most vulnerabile to the intersecting nexus issues of climate change, drought, food security and long standing social injustices. The Malawi T-learning case study will focus on the nexus concerns affecting learning for adaptation under stress of recurrent drought in maize production amongst rural women in the Lake Chilwa Basin.

Lake Chilwa is the second largest lake in Malawi with a surface area of 1,300 km2. The lake spans across three districts of Machinga, Zomba and Phalombe. The human population in the basin is estimated at two million people mainly consisting of three ethnic groups namely Lomwe, Yao and Nyanja. These groups have varying degrees of ontological and epistemological discourses affected by social-cultural structures and histories including their traditional knowledge systems, current tools and artefacts in use in their activities, and are also comprised of different activity systems. Christianity and Islam are the two main religious and these are oftentimes in in conflict with each other in the area.

The key matters of concern in the basin are recurrent droughts and environmental degradation. Among the three types of droughts of meteorological, agricultural and hydrological, the last two are of primary concern in the basin because of their notable impacts on agriculture and water systems respectively.  Both droughts and environmental degradation have cascading effects on the ways of being of the local population in the basin. The beings include food and income security currently manifest at both niche and regime levels following Gees (2002) multi-level perspectives (MLP). Impacts at landscape level will require more research. Besides its impacts on the local populatio’s ways of being, drought also disturbs the normal ecosystem functioning and creates issues such as reduced habitat for fish and birds.

Overall, there is a general consensus that deforestation is big issue and that climate change is exacerbating an already drought vulnerable lake which is both shallow and closed.  Increasing human population is said to be a major driver of much of the environmental degradation taking place, though the notion of political-ecology especially in deforestation is offering wider explanations for the problems. Other relational dynamics apart from political ecology are cultural-ecology (e.g. graveyard conservation) and social-economics (e.g. fish sales for income). Pertaining to impacts, agriculture is said to be the most affected sector and women are the most vulnerable because of their roles in the society. Culture plays a major role in escalating women’s vulnerability but there is still need for a detailed immanent critique of the cultural systems as they relate to women in the basin.

Despite the above generalizations about climate change, there is some, usually hidden scepticism, about climate change in the basin. For instance, since the lake has been drying since 1700s, some climate change sceptics have suggested that drought is a naturally occurring phenomenon in that the lake is expected to dry every 10 years anyway.  Drought is also seen by some as punishment from God and they quote some verses including Deuteronomy 11:16-17 that says “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you”

The doings to respond to drought and environmental degradation have been mainly through donor funded projects but also include interventions by the Malawi Government. Local communities have also taken part through contributions of land, labour and some inputs though their capabilities. Full exploitation of their potential functionings is limited by several factors including low literacy levels. The functionings by both project proponents and local communities are mostly guided by institutional or structural power since group (e.g. a farming committee) as opposed to individual approaches are promoted.  With regards to the powers of individuals and collective agents to bring about change, there is need for more investigation.

Some learning for adaptation and natural resources management is already taking place in the Lake Chilwa Basin communities. This is done through both formal (e.g. training by projects) and informal means (e.g. intergenerational learning). An example of informal learning is seen through protection of some tree species such as fertilizer and fruit tree and this protection continues for several generations in most areas in the basin. For now, it is not clear if this learning is transgressive in nature.

At a project awareness creation meeting held on 2nd September 2016 in Mchinga District (one of the 3 basin districts), the district executive committee (DEC) members approved engagement with the t-learning project but also asked questions as follows which relate to the approaches to be taken to the t-learning research:

  • The Lake Chilwa is so immense. What will be the sample size for this research?
  • This research will focus on women but how shall you take on board views of other community members such as youth and men? Can you consider a control group for comparison sake in this research?
  • The study intends to research learning in agriculture and fisheries sectors. Fishing is a man’s business in Malawi so how come you target women? Agriculture is a wide area, is the study going to cover all the sectors?
  • Environmental degradation is continuing in the very areas of donor project support. How is this study going to address this complex problem? How unique is this project?
  • There is already some research in the basin by Investing in Knowledge Network, and there is a need to collaborate.

September 2016

LEAD SEA, Malawi