Small Scale Catchment Management in Malawi



  • United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies


  • 24/05/2010

  • REGION :

  • Eastern Africa


  • Malawi (Chindozwa, northern Malawi)


  • Chindozwa’s respect for the environment is built on a past when trees were strategically maintained to ensure rainfall, fishing rituals called for sustainment of various plant materials, and other ritual practices also necessitated villagers conserve terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity. Villagers of Chindozwa utilize their terrestrial and aquatic milieu based on thorough knowledge of local topography and the ecology of its respective biota. Here land use can be classified into four patterns (slash and burn agriculture field, fallow, grassland and residential area) with various materials obtained from these landscapes that sustain livelihood. In terms of water use, a host of hook and net based methods are used to catch various lake fish; categorized according to appearance, ecology and stages of growth. The diverse terrestrial and aquatic biota are not only vital to the local livelihood, but central to the concept of well-being itself, as variety of food from both ecosystems is considered a manifestation of one’s physical, material and social well-being. This belief creates continuing incentive for integrated management of the two biota. Concern of recent deforestation led fishers to perform tree-planting exercises and other sustainable practices. A movement that began at the household level in 1988 consolidated in 2009 into CHI-MO (Chindozwa Home-based Initiative) and is rapidly expanding to neighbouring villages, various government offices and local NGOs.


  • catchment management, community based organization, well-being


  • Ms. Setsuko Nakayama has conducted her doctoral studies at the Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University, Japan. After her affiliation at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, she was assistant professor at Faculty of International Studies, Utsunomiya University at the time of this research. As of June 2010 she will join Kanazawa University, as specially appointed assistant professor at Center for Regional Collaboration in order to conduct a comparative study on local perceptions of terrestrial-aquatic relations and resource use in a satoyama-satoumi area in Noto Penninsula, Ishikawa Prefecture.

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Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa, has the greatest number of endemic fish species in the world and is a biodiversity hotspot.

Its rapidly evolving cichlid species are estimated at around 1,000. In particular, the mbuna group of rock-dwelling cichlids are treasured among aquarists of the world (Fig 1). Human consumption as food and income source, as well as intensifying land use in the catchment area are known threats to the diverse fish fauna (Rusuwa et al. 2006).

The case illustrates small scale catchment management practiced by fisher/farmers of the coastal ecotone. Based on beliefs that connect the land and the lake, the residents have sought to balance their use of the two.

Fig. 1. Rock-dwelling cichlids of the mbuna group are highly prized in the ornamental fish industry but vulnerable to sedimentation. (Photo by Setsuko Nakayama)

Regional Overview

Chindozwa (11 35 – 11 36 and E 34 16 – 34 18) is a lakeshore village near Nkhata Bay of northern Malawi, of about 1,000 people (2009 estimate), speaking the Tonga language. The area is a narrow strip of land, 2km in length from the top of Kamphimbi Hill (725 m AMSL) to the lakeshore (470m AMSL), bordered by two streams flowing from the hill to the lake. The vegetation around the hilltop is a semi-evergreen woodland dominated by Brachystegia spiciformis and Erythopholeum spp. The nearby Kalwe Forest Reserve displays miombo woodland vegetation (Fig. 2). The soil type of the area is X3r5/X4r5 (laterite soil) (Kalindekafe et al. 2000). Nkhata Bay Fisheries Office, which has hosted Geoffrey Fryer’s pioneering research on the mbuna cichlids (Fryer 1959), sits at the site whence the village founders originated. The average temperature of the area is 23.3C, while the annual precipitation is 1,712 mm (Nkhata Bay, 1996-2005), concentrated in months between November and April. May through July is the cold dry season while August through October is the hot dry season. The local livelihood depends mainly on cassava ( Manihot esculenta) cultivation, fishery, employment in Nkhata Bay and remittance from long distance migrant labor.

Fig. 2: Chindozwa Village and Nkhata Bay seen from the top of Kamphimbi Hill. (Photo by Setsuko Nakayama)

Terrestrial and aquatic resource use in the area

Villagers of Chindozwa utilize their terrestrial and aquatic milieu based on thorough knowledge of the topography as well as the ecology of its respective biota. Land use can be classified into four patterns (slash and burn agriculture field, fallow, grassland and residential area), resulting in the following vegetation types: garden dominated by cassava, shrub vegetation, grassland, middle forest and tall forest (Kalindekafe et al. 2000).

The above land use and vegetation are coordinated in a similar topographic pattern shared in the area (Fig 3). Ridges extending from the hills to the lake, bordered by streams, comprise units of production as well as social organization. Forests and shrubs are preserved on the hilltops and along the streams as well as places of spiritual importance such as the graveyard. Houses are clustered along the ridge in clearings enclosed by fruit trees such as mango, papaw and banana. A large clearing at the middle of the ridge serves the village center where the meeting place, school and church are built. On the slopes are a patchwork of cassava fields and their fallows at different stages of vegetation regeneration. Along the lakefront, rock and sand shores alternate with river mouth marshes. The lake bottom gives in immediately upon leaving the shore, especially along the rocks. Sand, mud and rock substrates are recognized, as well as lake currents running parallel to the shore. Sand shores function as bases for fishers to beach their canoes and mend their nets (Fig. 4). The shoreline is loosely zoned into areas for women, men and children for bathing and washing clothes. On the men’s beach, a net shelter is often built as a meeting place for men. Grasslands are found along the lakeshores and fallows, and serve grazing land for goats.

Fig. 3: A schematic figure of topography and land use in the area. (Drawn by Setsuko Nakayama, Features are not to scale.)

Fig. 4: Mending the net for usipa fishery. Canoes are beached in the background. (Photo by Setsuko Nakayama)

Villagers obtain various materials from the above described landscape to sustain their livelihood. The main crop cassava is cultivated through slash-and-burn shifting agriculture on the slopes (Fig. 5). In preparing the fields, tree stumps are deliberately left in the ground. Normal fallow period is 5 years, with annual firings to encourage the growth of thatch grass (Fig. 6). Side shoots regenerating from the tree stumps are preferred as poles and firewood for their relatively uniform size and shape. Some plots are left for longer periods to allow larger timber for planks and dugout canoes to grow. Non timber products from woodlands include diverse plant material for traditional medicine used for medical and ritual purposes (Fig. 7). Soil, streambed clay and lakeshore sand are also used for construction.

Forty six (46) tree species were identified from the various land uses within Chindozwa as compared to 33 from the miombo forest in Kalwe Forest Reserve (Kalindekafe et al. 2000).

Fig. 5: Forming cassava (Manihot esculenta) mounds on a lakeside slope. Note the transition between laterite soil and sand. (Photographed by Setsuko Nakayama)

Fig.6: Grass is collected during the dry season to thatch the roof. (Photo by Setsuko Nakayama)

Fig. 7: Roadside sale of herbal medicine (Photo by Setsuko Nakayama)

Villagers employ a host of hook and net based methods in order to catch the various fish from the lake, which they categorize according to appearance, ecology and stages of growth. The mbuna group is associated with rocky substrates whereas mtaka (the utaka group) are known to shoal around underwater rocky protrusions called chirundu (pl. virundu). The only truly pelagic species, usipa ( Engraulicypris sardella) constitutes an independent category in the local taxonomy. The topography of the substrate, the currents and the behavior of fish as well as their resilience to exploitation are important considerations in the methods and social arrangements in fishery. Villagers recognize mbunas’ sedentary behavior and dependence on algal growth on the rocks, and the negative impact of sedimentation and exploitation. Mbuna fishing is restricted to young boys who fish only for household consumption (Fig. 8). As for the mtaka group, virundu are classified into two types depending on their resilience to fishing pressure and the fishing effort adjusted accordingly. Usipa, the most resilient fish is the main economic target in the local fishery and are fished using paraffin lamps (Fig. 9).

Population increase has been a major driving force of change in the village landscape. The reception of returned labor migrants, research and extension at Nkhata Bay Fisheries office (Chirwa 1984, Nakayama 2008), shifts in agricultural policies and the cassava mealy bug disaster (Kalindekafe et al. 2000) have catalyzed the change—the process of which shall be described in the sections that follow.

Fig. 8: Childrens’ catch of mtaka (top two) and mbuna (bottom two) caught with earthworms as bait. (Photo by Setsuko Nakayama)

Fig. 9: Usipa (Engraulicypris sardella) is the main economic target for the local fishers. (Photo by Setsuko Nakayama)

Renegotiating “traditional” and “modern” in ecological knowledge

The historical interaction between local resource users and scientists sheds new light to our understanding of the relationship between “local-traditional” and “scientific-modern” in ecological knowledge. Scientific studies of the lake’s diverse fish fauna are in fact products of interaction between local fishers and scientists. Since most of the fish species are endemic to the lake, pioneer scientists have relied on fishers’ knowledge as a starting point for taxonomic and ecological studies. The incorporation of local taxonomies into the scientific language, such as the mbuna (Tonga) and utaka (Chewa) reflects such interaction. The basic structure of local taxonomy is roughly consistent with scientific taxonomy (Jackson et al., 1963). Moreover, local fishers identify about the same number of fish categories as scientists(Ambali et al. 2001). While local contributions to scientific research were widely acknowledged in pioneer studies (Jackson, et al. 1963; Fryer 1959, 1999), the fact is largely forgotten to the scientific world due to their structure of knowledge production (1). Moreover, the resultant rise in ornamental fish trade rarely benefitted local resource users (Kada et al. 2002). In order to revitalize the cooperation between local resource users and scientists to the benefit of the former, the Nkhata Bay community including Chindozwa, and Mzuzu University are working together to set up a field research and education center in Nkhata Bay.

Planning for the purpose of optimization of ecosystem services

Villagers have long sensed the relationship between terrestrial and aquatic resource use and have sought to balance their use between the two. Their understanding of the limnological unit of production and society has been played out in various rituals, its central tenet being that trees call the rain that connects the crop field and the lake via the stream, calling the fish back into the lake. The performance of these rituals necessitated the conservation of diverse habitats in the area. Trees had to be strategically kept in order to ensure rainfall and its flow. Fishing rituals called for various plant materials from specific places with distinct vegetations found within the village. While the belief provided a shared frame of reference for the villagers in organizing their activities, the ritual practices enabled villagers to monitor and conserve terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity.

Nevertheless, in the past 30 years, crop fields have expanded in expense of forest area and fallow period (Kalindekafe et al. 2000), while fishers turned to more effective gear (Nakayama 2008). Conventional sectoral approaches have tended to see the change as a result of villager’s relentless intensification of resource use in response to increase in population and economic opportunity. A trans-sectorial approach, on the other hand, enables us to see a different picture. One instance is the transition from torch to paraffin lamps in usipa fishery (Nakayama 2008). Despite the village’s proximity to Nkhata Bay Fisheries Office and its rapid technological innovations (Chirwa 1984), Chindozwa was among the last to adopt the use of lamps by a time lag of 30 years. Villagers had resisted the lamps in order to avoid disparity in fishing opportunity caused by the monetary costs involved in lamp fishing. Those against the use of lamps finally gave in by late 1980s in response to rising concerns of deforestation, spurred by crop failure due to the cassava mealy bug disaster that swept across east and southern Africa, and the concomitant clearing of new fields in the area. The temporary influx of aid maize created avenues for change in food habits, as villagers began to substitute cassava with maize as porridge material. The situation justified villagers to shift towards commercial fishing, in order to obtain cash for maize purchase. Given the new option in staple food, they have since refrained from harvesting cassava during the dry season when open mounds could aggravate soil degradation and erosion. The case illustrates one aspect of villagers’ considerations over social equity and resource sustainability in the optimization of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem services.

Participation of a wide range of stakeholders

Local concerns over deforestation led fishers to perform various tree-planting exercises by 1988. Timber for canoe, for instance, has been replaced from naturally occurring hardwood to softwood planted around the houses (Fig. 10) which could be pruned into the shape of the canoe as they grew (Fig. 11) while the cuttings could be used as fuel. The movement that began at the household level has consolidated in 2009 into CHIMO (Chindozwa Home-based Initiative, Mng’ona Organization), now a registered community based organization at Nkhata Bay District Community Office. CHIMO is currently rapidly expanding their partnerships to neighboring villages, various government offices and local NGO/NPOs.

Fig. 10: Planting of Gmellina in the residential area. (Photo by Setsuko Nakayama)

Fig. 11: A Gmellina tree is trimmed into the shape of a canoe as it stands and grows. (Photo by Setsuko Nakayama)

Contributions to local well-being

The diverse terrestrial and aquatic biota is not only vital to the local livelihood, but central to the concept of well-being itself. The Tonga have expressed various norms and values with reference to dendi, the relish to accompany their sima which is hard porridge made from cassava. To be able to consume various dendi -the diverse fish in particular- with sima is considered a manifestation of one’s physical, material and social well-being (Van Velsen 1964), which is realized through livelihood activities and frequent sharing among households (Nakayama 1998). This cannot be achieved, however, without simultaneous management of the land and the lake. The concept of well-being through dendi connects the land and the lake in the mind of villagers through their umoyo (stomach-life) and provides them with incentives for integrated management of the two.

1 See, for instance, the system of reference and acknowledgement, and the procedure of taxonomic description.

About the study

This study was carried out by Setsuko Nakayama under consultancy with United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies as part of the program activities of the Satoyama Initiative of UNU-IAS. The study included literature review and data consultations based on her previous researches between 1996 and 2009, Regional Workshops conducted in Malawi, in particular, the Northern Region Workshop of September 2009, Mzuzu University. Special thanks to Professor J.H. Seyani of the National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens of Malawi in the arrangements of the regional workshops, and the residents of Chindozwa and Nkhata Bay who have guided Nakayama’s research since 1996.


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