Our boat slowly sails past sniffing hippos and eating elephants on the Shire River, Malawi’s main waterway. This river is said to have been part of the inspiration for Frodo’s homeland from The Lord of the Rings, along with the forest surrounding Mulanje Mountain, a few hours’ drive south. Bright purple water hyacinth islands float by our side, on their long way to where the Shire River flows into the Zambezi. We will be traveling the road over the Shire every day for the next three days. But we are not here for the wild flora and fauna. We’re here for the pump house.
You risk your life to get water
For generations, the Shire River has been the only source of water for the thirteen villages that make up the Chikolongo community and lie on the western border of what is now Malawi’s Lewand National Park. The area is remote, hot and difficult to access. There is no medical clinic, infrastructure or electricity. The Chikolongo people had to fend for themselves at the cost of their lives and those around them.
Men, women, and even young children walked through the national park to the river to fetch water or take a shower. In doing so, they were in danger of being injured or even not surviving. Caroline Chizuzui, an administrative assistant with the Chikolongo Livelihoods Project (CLP), describes seeing a friend who was being trampled by an elephant while on her way to the river. Linley Chitseko, who works part-time in the field, told me that one of her relatives was killed by a crocodile while taking a shower. There are many such stories.
Reduce the chances of conflict between humans and animals
Not only did the search for water cost people’s lives, but their crops were also unsafe. Elephants, monkeys, and other wild animals plundered the crops of a community that was already suffering from low yields. Community members entered the national park for bushmeat – meat from wild game hunting – or to collect wood. Before CLP began in 2013, human-animal conflicts were ubiquitous.
CLP is a partnership between the Chikolongo Community, IFAW and Imani Consultants. The primary objective of the project was to reduce the risk of human-animal conflicts. The first steps were simple but very effective. IFAW repaired and replaced parts of the four-mile electric fence between the community and Liwonde National Park. A solar powered water pump has been installed near the river. There are two huge water tanks with river water pumping and two faucets providing water for 1,420 people. In addition, there are five fishing ponds left behind by 24 community-owned plots and a series of rice and corn fields.
Listen to the interests of the community
Mada Selinci works for Imani Consulting. He is the project’s community and agricultural liaison, and our guide on this journey. Nobody knows this project better than him. He sows weeds and harvests for two weeks a month with community members. He has good reason for that. If they tell him they are tired, he is. If his back hurts, his back hurts, too. With his “management style”, he inspires confidence, which is essential to the success of a project like this. Society listens to the extent because they know it understands them. They know he is defending their interests.
These interests have not changed since the International Fund for Women became active in this area in 2008. The community wanted safe access to water, greater food security and a means of livelihood. The problem was that they couldn’t do it without risking their lives and causing harm to the environment.
The water pump accelerated everything
Once the water pump was turned on, developments accelerated. Life flourished. Water tanks and ponds are full. The fields were irrigated and crops were grown. By bringing water directly to the community, villagers no longer have to walk into the park to get it.
The installation of an electric fence prevents animals from damaging the villagers’ crops. Residents can now grow vegetables to feed their families. The rest they can sell. At night they can sleep and no longer have to stay up and light fires to scare the elephants. CLP provides employment opportunities to members of the community. With the income they earn, they can invest in livestock, fertilizer, bicycles or a better education for their children.
As food production improved, protein intake increased by 71 percent, and thus people began to eat healthy food. The irrigation system, built thanks to the water pump, tripled or tripled the yield of corn and rice. More than 60 percent of the community now lives off the sale of their crops.
Perhaps most important of all, the Chikolongo community no longer sees wildlife as a threat or a source of protein, but as something valuable to conserve. Residents discover that conservation gives them something: more opportunities to earn a living. And it turns out that animals benefit from that, too. The fence protects them from poaching and no more trees are cut down in their habitat.
However, not everything is going smoothly. According to Mada, it will be a few years before the project becomes fully self-sufficient, and money is required for this. Together with the members of the community and the organizing committee that represents them, he tries to create as many partnerships as possible. This often works, but not always. And yes, monkeys still sneak into the cornfields from time to time.
Because of the success of CLP, IFAW and Imani Consultants face new and unknown challenges. More and more villages are joining the community, while only a limited amount of water can be pumped from the river. The organizing committee has already set time periods – the times when villagers can get water from a tap and the times when farmers can irrigate their land. If CLP is to continue to meet demand, more water pumps and solar panels will have to be installed. But for now, Mada, his colleagues and the International Women’s Federation want to take it easy. They want to make sure what is out there now works well before they consider expanding the project further.
In any case, the Chikolongo Livelihoods project has clearly demonstrated that a participatory and holistic approach to human-animal conflict is the future of conservation. In doing so, the interests and needs of the community are addressed and not ignored, and organizations seek solutions rather than just lecturing the community and then leaving.
CLP is actually run by the community itself, and that’s the way it should be. Community members work the land and take care of ducks and geese. Feed and nurture tilapia in fish tanks. They maintain family plots and harvest honey from beehives. They are experiencing the undeniable benefits that this project has brought them, as their lives are radically changed. Now they know: water is life, not only for them but also for the wild animals in their environment.
Text: Nick Schoenfeld IFAW
Photos: Julia Gunter IFAW