Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy


October 20, 2005. My work in Malawi, or why your tax dollars are keeping me in Africa this time.



Iím in Malawi working on a natural resources management project. If you were reading the New York Times in October, perhaps you read its series on Malawi, depicting it as a very poor country with a very high HIV/AIDS rate, a lot of forest fires, and horrendous jails. I donít work on AIDS or prisons, but my work does have something to do with the forest fires, at least indirectly. The COMPASS project, which is funded by USAID, is trying to help rural Malawians find a way to make a living that doesnít deplete their natural resources. Malawians are overwhelmingly subsistence farmers, and ninety percent of the countryís energy comes from fuelwood.


When there were two or three million of them, that worked fine, but with twelve million, itís a lot more difficult. Family plots of land are too small to support everyone dependent on them, and each generation they get smaller as they must be divided among more offspring. The country once had lush forests, but they have been depleted by people seeking more land to cultivate, seeking wood for building materials or cooking fuel, or selling lumber to supplement their inadequate farming revenues.

It doesnít help that Malawiansí favorite food is something called nsima, a polenta-like wobbly mush made of white maize meal. Which wouldnít be a problem Ė I actually kind of like nsima Ė but maize doesnít grow very well in Malawi. Any deviation from good growing conditions, and the crop is stunted, and food supplies are even tighter than usual. Malawians will tell you that they have always eaten nsima, it is part of their culture and heritage. But in fact they have been eating it only for a few generations. Maize is,

after all, a crop from the Americas, not one that is indigenous to southern Africa. Before the introduction of maize by Europeans, Malawians depended more on cassava and other vegetables that grow well in the countryís uncertain weather conditions.

So last year, when the rains ended by March instead of running till May as expected, the maize crop failed. By the fall, the newspapers were regularly tracking how much of the population was at risk of running out of grain before the next seasonís crop could be harvested Ė if the rains donít fail again. When I was there, they were estimating four million at risk. Instead of declaring a food emergency last spring when the rains failed, the government had held off for political reasons. So they didnít approach foreign donors for food aid until the fall, by which time the Malawian agricultural marketing

agency, ADMARC, had run out of grain. ADMARC usually sells maize at a price slightly below market, but buying from them can involve long waits on line and travel to a relatively distant office. An abundant supply available from ADMARC helps keep market prices down, since if the price differential is too high people will put up with the ADMARC hassles instead of buying in the market. When ADMARC ran out, however, market prices for maize imported privately from Mozambique (which still has relatively abundant land and produces food surpluses) shot up.


Peasants who had already run out of stored grain from last year had a mix of strategies for coping. Some paid the higher prices for maize. That meant that men who should have spent the fall planting the next crop instead had to spend their time working for wages, or their families would starve now. Which in turns can mean that this yearís crop might not get planted at all, or if it did, it couldnít be tended as carefully as needed, because the men were busy earning cash instead of farming.

Malawians do eat things besides nsima. Many grow fruits Ė bananas, mangos, and in some areas pineapples. So another response to maize failures might be to eat more of their own fruit instead of selling it. Or sell more of it instead of eating it, so they could use the money to buy maize.

Some of the other coping strategies actual relate to my work. Remember my work? That is what I was going to explain today. Malawians also depend on wild foods, which they gather for their own consumption. They could look for more of these, placing increasing pressure on the resource base around them. They gather wild resources to sell Ė fuelwood, timber, animals. When famine hits, they gather more for sale, so they can bring in extra cash with which to buy maize. The gathering of these resources often involves setting fires; to flush out animals to be hunted, for light when illegally sawing timber in the middle of the

night, to cook meals while working in the forest. All too frequently, those fires get out of control, burning large swaths of the forest on which everyone depends. When times are bad, people set fires on purpose, too Ė to clear trees so they can cultivate the land, to kill trees so they can be harvested legally, even in acts of arson spurred by anger against the Forest Department.

My work isnít directly an outcome of the crop failures and famine; these pressures exist even when the rains are good, thanks to constant increases a population that has no livelihood strategies that donít depend on the land and the forests. The famine has just exaggerated everything; led to more hunting, more fires, more cutting of trees, and more people without enough food to eat.

The COMPASS project is focused on helping people earn sustainable livelihoods from their resources, instead of depleting them to bring in short-run income. So they were interested in estimating what the resources would be worth if they were managed sustainably, and comparing that with their value if they are used up through unsustainable use. This kind of estimation, sometimes referred to as ďvaluationĒ in the environmental economics literature, is novel for Malawi, and perhaps novel for USAID projects. The hope, of

course, is that the resources will turn out to be worth much more if managed sustainably, and once the government sees this clearly as the result of my work, they will be willing to take the steps needed to prevent depletion and ensure sustainable management. Iíd suggest you not hold your breath, though.

My work right now is kind of a pilot, a test valuation study in a single region. If this goes well Ė if the data are good enough to do the study, and the values come out the way the project hopes Ė then the plan is to expand the approach to consider other parts of the country as well.

For now, though, Iím working on the initial pilot. Itís focused on Mulanje Mountain, the tallest peak in the country. Mulanje represents a lot to Malawians, perhaps a bit like the Grand Canyon in the United States. Itís a dramatic place, a place of legends and folks tales, and

the home of the unique and endangered Malawi cedar. No one lives on top of the mountain, as the whole top is a protected forest. People live all around it, though, and depend heavily on its resources. Not only forests, plants, and animals; they also rely on the mountainís pure streams for water supply, to drink, to irrigate the tea plantations on the steep slopes, and to a much more limited extent to irrigate other crops. But the forests are being destroyed at a furious rate. The wildlife on the mountain is almost gone; where people used to hunt large mammals, and leopards were a constant fear, now they hunt rats and mice, and a few civet cats are the only felines left. From the base of the mountain you can see smoke from the fires, which were worse this year because of the drought and resulting famine.


At the same time, COMPASS and the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust Ė MMCT, a non-profit working to protect the mountain Ė are working hard to develop other economic activities that could create an incentive not to destroy the resources. So my job is to figure out what the mountain might look like in the future if the country keeps going as it has been, and what it might look like under alternate management regimes. And then to estimate its economic value under each scenario, so we can compare them.

Itís interesting, itís challenging, and itís well-nigh impossible. Valuation is a somewhat dicey undertaking under the best of circumstances. Malawi does not offer the best of circumstances. The country used to be tolerably good at collecting and managing statistical data, but they gave it up some fifteen years ago when they gave up dictatorship. Getting rid of the dictatorship was no doubt a good thing, but the ďdemocracyĒ that replaced it sometimes seems closer to anarchy than to anything that passes for democracy in the west. At least with respect to public administration, public finance, and other operational aspects of government. Probably with respect to representative elected government as well, but thatís another matter. So the most recent census was conducted without first verifying the locations and names of the villages, with the result that all current population data, and any other data linked to population, are suspect. The historical time series data on river flows and rainfall, essential

for considering the impact of land use change on water supply, petered out in the early 1990s. Iíd like to know how much is lost to fire, but those data are only recorded for plantation forests, and even then they are guesses. There are records of the number of tourists visiting the mountain, because they must register (and pay) to stay in the hikerís huts, but those data are recorded in several different places and no one is clear whether thereís overlap. There are records of the logging permits sold, but of course no one knows how much wood is harvested illegally. Water use is only metered in towns, where people pay based on consumption; no one knows how much is used from rural wells and standpipes. And so on.

Then thereís the challenge of estimating economic value, even if the data were good. When people donít pay for water, how should I put a value on it? Thatís not that hard Ė I used the price paid by those who do pay for water. How about the value of stolen timber? Maybe use the price people pay when they purchase it from the Forest Department. The value of water used to irrigate tea? Not

clear, since there is no comparable market price for irrigation water. The value of wild products could be based on what they sell for in markets, but there are no market data on those prices; market surveys only cover more common products like maize. How about estimating how much fuelwood people take from the forest? There have been a number of surveys but the results vary widely; which should I use?

Thatís all simply for estimating the value of current use of resources. It gets even more muddy when we consider the value of what might be available if the forests were managed better Ė or how values might change with scarcity as the forest is degraded even further. If more trees burn, will the value of the remaining ones rise? If drinking water supplies are contaminated because people move onto land upstream from the water intakes and donít have adequate sewer systems, does that change the value of remaining water? How?


As you can see, this is a rather uncertain business. Sometimes Iím not sure the results will be worth anything at all, except perhaps to demonstrate how unreliable Malawian statistics are and how unsure valuation is. Other times Iím not even sure whether the resources would be worth more if they were sustainably managed. Or whether there will even be anything left to manage sustainably by the time my study is done.

But Iím plugging along. I hope it will turn out to be useful for something besides giving me an education and helping support my itinerant lifestyle. When Iím done, Iíll put it up on the web (on my work site, not here!) Ė you can have a look and let me know what you think.

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All text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.