The GEF Small Grants Programme in Malawi is supporting the Soche Mountain Land Care Extension Project, a multi-pronged community initiative aimed at restoring the ecosystem of the Soche Mountain Forest Reserve after many years of destruction and neglect. This project is benefiting the natural environment through rehabilitation of degraded lands, afforestation in community areas and mountain slopes, and enforcement of local by-laws to promote natural regeneration of vegetation cover and protect habitats of the few remaining wild animals, including hyenas and birds. The Soche Mountain Forest Reserve is located right at the edge of the city of Blantyre in southern Malawi and has seen the accelerated degradation of its ecosystems due to the increasing demand for forest products from the city.
The project is also benefiting communities adjacent to the mountain reserve through training and sustainable alternative livelihood activities to enable them to generate additional incomes as a means of reducing direct reliance on the mountain for all daily needs. The project is implemented by Sustainable Rural Growth and Development Initiative (SRGDI), a youth NGO. SRGDI received a $41,321 grant from the GEF Small Grants Programme in December 2008 for the implementation of this project (April 2009-March 2011).
Soche Mountain lies bare to a large extent. Trees have been cut down because of proliferation of unsustainable biomass based enterprises. Fuel wood and timber extraction, beer brewing and brick firing among others have contributed significantly to loss of tree cover. These non-farm activities are among the few options available to poor households to earn cash for food and other basic needs. Empirical evidence showed that about 414 hectares of forest cover had patches of bare ground and about 50 hectares of land was completely bare. The boundary of the mountain forest reserve covers a distance of about 8.2 kilometres whose slopes are being cultivated by communities surrounding the mountain. Land clearing for agriculture on the slopes of Soche Mountain can be seen even from a far. Agricultural fields were now scaling up the mountain slopes, clearing vegetation as they advance. Communities cultivating on the slopes lacked both technical and material support to integrate sound conservation and agronomic practices into their farming systems.
This project is a participatory initiative to involve communities in landcare practices particularly tree planting, promotion of natural regeneration of endemic vegetation, soil and water conservation practices and capacity building. Through a participatory rural appraisal (PRA) facilitated by the NGO, the communities developed community-based action plans which included re-establishing forest cover on Soche mountain, along with good agricultural practices on farmland just below the mountain. Good agricultural practices included soil and water conservation and agro forestry.
Communities (Friends of Soche Mountain) from the four community conservation areas of Somba, Muleso, Misesa and Chilobwe planted a total of 46,000 trees in Soche Mountain, with about 17 percent dedicated to agro-forestry. Agro-forestry species planted in farmers' fields included Faidherbia albida, Senna siamea and Senna spectabilis in addition to Tephrosia vogelii (shrub). Individual woodlots were also established by different households. If the trees are well managed and during their growing period, the area without vegetation cover will be reduced by 17% from the current 50 hectares as already 18 hectares have been rehabilitated. By working with community leaders it has now been possible to withdraw some farmers from continuing to cultivate the mountain slopes. Communities have also established communal woodlots and practice landcare technologies in their own fields and homesteads.
The innovative approach used in this project demonstrates that active community involvement and positive empowerment can provide the required community support needed in conservation work; in particular, when the community members become the manager and main user of their natural resources.
In addition, community conservation work can bring secondary benefits not originally anticipated, as was the case for the Chilobwe Chapter of "Friends of Soche Mountain". In this project the community was able to support a project to properly harness potable water from a fountain in the mountain side for use by communities at the bottom. Thanks to this side project, over 250 households now have access to safe drinking water, after basic treatment for sedimentation and chlorination.
The water supply component, along with beekeeping and fish farming are the livelihoods supporting strategies of the project. The community water kiosks are completely managed by the communities themselves using their own governance structures and are providing additional sources of income. Part of the water supply income will be ploughed back into conservation work by purchasing tree nursery inputs such as tree seeds and polythene bags among others.
Income from beekeeping and fish farming is expected during the later part of 2011. Speaking during a field visit, SRGDI's Director, Mr Maynard Nyirenda said, "we came to support community conservation efforts on Soche Mountain without plans to address the water problem in the area. However, through a lengthy dialogue process, community leaders insisted that if we wanted to succeed we must provide a solution to the community's greatest need – safe drinking water and that everything would be under control – they were right!" Community leaders are now working to conserve and sustain their source of water, Soche Mountain.