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Michiru Hill: Battle Ground for Conservation and Economic Survival

Michiru hill Michiru hill - pic by Alinafe Mlamba

Nestled in the heart of Blantyre, Michiru hill, once a pristine sanctuary, now stands as a testament to the escalating tensions between community members and law enforcement agencies. What was once a haven for biodiversity and a retreat for nature enthusiasts has become a battleground marred by conflict, illegal activities, and a struggle for survival.

The ramifications of economic hardship have driven the local community to engage in illegal practices such as sand mining and encroachment upon the protected area.

This pursuit of economic sustenance has resulted in wanton destruction, deforestation, and rampant tree cutting within the Michiru sanctuary and forest, leaving the mountain scarred with fallen trees and vulnerable to the harsh realities of climate change.

The clash between economic necessity and conservation efforts is vividly portrayed along the tourist route to Michiru.

The flourishing brick-making industry, heavily reliant on the mountain's tree species, stands in stark contrast to the efforts to protect this ecological treasure.

Golden Chatha, a representative of the local chief, acknowledges the illegal activities within the forest but emphasizes the underlying forces of economic survival and urbanization driving these actions.

“We know that this is a protected area and as advisors we always remind people about this. However, it is safe to say that the people tend to do this due to poverty,” he said.

The battleground between the communities and law enforcement agencies has not been without casualties.

Patricia Ziwani's story is a tragic example of the conflict's toll—a young woman caught in the crossfire, struck by a stray bullet during a confrontation between forest guards and encroachers.

“I was washing nappies for my child at the river and I didn’t know what was happening until I saw some people running. I tried to ask them what was going on and they did not respond that's when I proceeded with my business,” said Ziwani as she recalled the November 1, 2023 incident.

For her, it symbolized the clash between nature and the pressing needs of economic survival. “I took the basin I felt a sharp pain on my leg, it was a bullet... that is when I started crying for help,” she said.

The ongoing struggle has instilled fear among the 14 game rangers tasked with protecting the area. Incidents of attacks on rangers and the torching of facilities like the Paul Taylor Camp paint a bleak picture of the challenges faced in safeguarding Michiru Mountain.

With the area prone to attacks, irate villagers have on several occasion looted staffhouses within the vicinity. The conflict has also cost Michiru bridge within the 53-year-old 3,004 hectare area, inconveniencing tourists in the process as it was set ablaze.

Maliko Chikaonga, a hiker, says the situation has instilled fear in tourists as they find the vicinity unsafe, describing it as a battleground. “the security threat in the mountain has left us thinking twice of going up the mountain,” he said.

Law enforcement agencies like the Chileka Police are cognizant of the situation and are striving to enhance community sensitization initiatives to secure the protected area.

While emphasizing that the ongoing conflict is an issue that they are aware of, Chileka Police Publicist Jonathan Phillipo said they are working on bringing the perpetrators of the ongoing tussle to book.

One of the pillars that fall under Malawi’s 2063 development blueprint is urbanization. But this according to Thom Khanje, Public Relations and Communications Manager for the National Planning Commission should not be an excuse for the citizenry to deplete the environment.

In an interview with Zodiak, Khanje warned against using urbanization as an excuse for environmental depletion, calling for decisive action against those breaking the law.

While efforts are being made to conserve biodiversity, human resource constraints hinder effective safeguarding of the environment, according to Joseph Nkosi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Tourism. Despite initiatives for civic education, the efficacy of these efforts remains in question.

“we have a program that we have put in place to ensure that the community understands the importance of having such a wildlife reserve within their community,” he said.

Environmental activist Mathews Malata stresses the need for comprehensive and concerted efforts addressing funding, integrity, accountability, and consistency in handling this critical issue.

“It’s a very complicated issue that needs all the players on the table, and be decisive and consistent when it comes to enforcement because the other issue that is there is also on resources because they will tell you that they don’t have fuel, vehicles among other things so its an issue to look at wholly,” he said.

Sustainable development goal number 15 looks at protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

In an attempt to demonstrate commitment to conservation, a contingent of Malawi Defence Force soldiers have been deployed to protect part of the area.

But in the wake of the struggle, Zodiak has established that funding woes have ensued between the ministry of tourism and the ministry of natural resources as both parties own part of the area, Michiru forest and Michiru Sanctuary respectively.

According to our sources, the soldiers are solely protect the section of the forestry, translating to one side of the mountain, assertions which Tourism minister Vera Kamtukule has dismissed.

Kamtukule told this publication that the two ministries have been working closely to address the vice.

Kamtukule however pointed that government aims to alleviate economic hardships by scaling up income-generating activities like beekeeping, seeking to empower local communities financially.

“We are promoting ecotourism within forests, fostering community engagement and protection. By showcasing the economic benefits that communities can derive from their forests, we hope to instill a sense of responsibility and participation,” she said, adding that installation of infrared camera’s in the mountain is part of the conservation efforts, a technology whose success has been proved at Kasungu National Park which has seen the use of drones bearing positive results.

The ongoing assault on Michiru Mountain highlights the tug-of-war between conservation and economic survival, raising pertinent questions about priorities in a time when environmental conservation is of utmost importance.

As Malawi endeavors to protect its natural resources, the fate of Michiru Mountain remains a poignant reminder of the intricate challenges facing conservation efforts, impacting not only the environment but also the country's tourism prospects.

In this battle for survival, the question lingers: where will the balance between economic needs and environmental preservation be struck?

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