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Soils / / Land management matters: Malawian communities create maps to find answers

Land management matters: Malawian communities create maps to find answers

In Malawi, worry creases farmers’ faces as they explain that their maize crop may fail this year. Planting was done on time, but in January intense rainfall and flooding swept away much of the fields, soil and seeds alike.  Our AGORA* team witnessed the force of these rains during a participatory mapping exercise in Ntcheu District. As we drove away from one village, a downpour began and within minutes, rivers of red silty water flowed between the ridges of maize, carrying away the precious fertile topsoil, swelling rivers, creating gullies, washing away seeds and paths.

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A flooded maize field in Ntcheu, Malawi. Photo: J. Braslow/CIAT

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Erosion impact after January 2015 flooding in Ntcheu, Malawi. Photo: J. Braslow/CIAT









Because farmers are facing the likelihood of serious food insecurity this year, the AGORA project team acted quickly on community concerns and ideas for addressing food needs. Farmers identified sweet potatoes as a possible solution to meeting their food security needs this year, but said they had trouble getting access to planting material. Sweet potatoes need less time than maize and, if planted soon, could provide much needed food this year if maize fails.  The AGORA team promptly contacted the International Potato Center (CIP), our fellow CGIAR center and together delivered sweet potato vines to farmers. This cross-center collaboration provided a good example of what CGIAR center reform can look like: centers mobilizing to act together on the ground to address farmers’ identified needs and challenges.

Finding long term solutions
This is a great short-term solution, but how can we help mitigate the damage these floods cause in the long-term? Looking down at the soggy soil beneath your feet may not be your first thought, but there are some promising options that start from the ground up.  Sustainable Land Management (SLM) practices can keep the soil in place, slow the flow of rushing water and help water infiltrate into the soil.

In discussions with farmers in Ntcheu District, soil erosion came up again and again as a problem and sustainable land management practices such as tree planting and vetiver grass suggested as possible solutions. But do we really know these are the “right” answers for their contexts? Communities haven’t tried or succeeded with these efforts in the past.  We need to find out why, if they think these are solutions, they have not already adopted them.  The AGORA project is trying to answer these questions and work with communities to identify and test solutions and incentives for improving land management in this region of Malawi.

Aside from immediate food security needs, the participatory mapping exercise facilitated discussion on natural resources and their management.  In Malaswa village, villagers recognize the importance of trees for addressing land degradation. Yet in 1999, when 1000 seedlings were planted as part of a project to set up a community nursery, all but two dried up or were eaten by termites. The community said that it had not been made clear at the start of the project who was supposed to take care of the trees and who was going to benefit from them.  Stories of failed interventions are common across the continent. There are a wealth of well-meant but poorly designed projects that fail to take adequate account of the social context in rural communities.

At CIAT, our work focuses on understanding the complex social and biophysical landscapes of the communities with whom we work. Participatory mapping is one of the methods we are using.  It combines modern cartography with participatory methods to understand the spatial knowledge of local communities, and to discover the cultural and social information that communities perceive as important.  We are gaining an understanding of how communities use their landscape, where degradation is a problem and why, and what resources are available and important to them. This information includes customary land boundaries, traditional natural resource management practices, sacred areas, and so on.

Mapping in Action
As we drove in to Kapulula village on the first day of mapping, 26th January 2015, the energy was high. The villagers knew we were coming, and we were greeted by women, dancing and singing, the babies on their backs bouncing to the rhythm.

To capture the differences in perception and in access and use of resources, we split the participants into separate groups of men, women and youth. Armed with stickers and markers, the villagers’ first task was to orient the map according to features that they recognized within the landscape such as roads and rivers. The next was mapping resources, such as water sources, grazing areas, and forests where villagers collect mushrooms, firewood and other products. Villagers were also asked to identify areas where soil fertility and erosion problems were prominent.  In discussions, termites emerged as a huge problem for farmers who claimed that yield losses from termite damage can reach as high as 50%.

After four mapping sessions in different villages, we could clearly see the issues and messages bubbling to the surface. Low soil fertility was listed as a major problem in all the communities but was difficult to map as it was so chronic and widespread that highlighting it would have covered the entire map.  Erosion hotspots proved easier to target. In general, participants showed that resources, from water to grazing land to trees, are declining, identifying population pressure as a major cause.

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Women in Malaswa village point out and discuss the declining resources they mapped. Photo: J. Braslow/CIAT

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Youth in Gwauya orient themselves to the map by first drawing roads and rivers. Photo: J. Braslow/CIAT










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Youth in Kapalula village discuss their water resources before mapping them. Photo: J. Braslow/CIAT

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Each mapping group presented their map and discussion highlights. Photo: J. Braslow/CIAT










The mapping exercise led to more in-depth discussions  and community members identified actions they hoped could address some of their problems. Follow-up engagement in the communities will focus on identifying incentives for community-created land management projects. One critical element in improving land management is governance. In most of the communities we are working in, water committees are working well.  Understanding the elements for their success may allow us to transfer their model to other natural resources governance.

While the mapping exercise provided AGORA with insight into the land and the community, participants also learnt from each other. For example, younger community members learned about cultural and spiritual places used in the past.

What’s next?
Next up for the AGORA team is to digitize and compile one common map. We will use these consolidated maps to work with communities to design and implement a community environmental management plan.

The mapping exercise illuminated patterns of resource use across the landscape and prompted discussions on key constraints to resource management. The complexity that emerged shows well how externally designed interventions can prove impractical. Take for example possible solutions to soil fertility problems. Increasing the application of cattle manure to restore soil fertility is often proposed as a solution. Yet, through our mapping exercise, we learned that there were many more cattle in the past than there are today. Due to structural adjustment policies, where the state withdrew financial support for many government services, cattle dips stopped running and subsequently many cattle died of disease. Farmers are reluctant to invest in more livestock when disease is such a threat. Grazing areas have also been encroached on by farms. Farmers who do have cattle, have to take them further to drink and graze. For those few who do still have cattle, carrying manure to the fields is hard and time consuming work. Usually, farmers manage this constraint by focusing manure application on the plots nearest to their homes.  These discussions illustrate some of the difficulties in using manure alone to restore soil fertility.  The mapping exercise brought out the connection between government policies, animal health and soil fertility.

This is just one example of the patterns and connections that the mapping exercise reveals, paving the way for finding appropriate solutions.


By Juliet Braslow, Katherine Snyder, Justine Cordingley

*The AGORA team leading the mapping exercises with communities includes CIAT, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) and Total Land Care (TLC)


The UN has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils to raise awareness of the urgent need to protect the resource that feeds and waters us. Find out how CIATs global soils research team of soil scientists, ecologists and anthropologists are working with partners to protect and restore this vital resource.

The GIZ funded Acting Together Now for Pro-poor Strategies Against Soil and Land Degradation (AGORA) project partners in Malwi include Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) and Total Land Care (TLC) and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS).

Other CGIAR blogs on this topic.

  • Julius Kinjabe

    I wish to have my one acre land under soybeans this season. I am in Bungoma (Bumula). please advice.
    reply to jkinjabe@yahoo.com


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  • Julius Kinjabe: I wish to have my one acre land under soybeans this season. I am in Bungoma (Bumula). please advice. reply to jkinjabe@yahoo.com
  • Hellen Chege: #Talk soil When carrying a soil test on a given farm that has different section(tree zone, backyard e.t.c) should the soil sample be mixed or are they treated differently?
  • erichj: Clean Biomass cooking is no small thing. The World Bank Study; Biochar Systems for Smallholders in Developing Countries: Leveraging Current Knowledge and Exploring Future Potential for Climate-Smart Agriculture http://fb.me/38njVu2qz has very exacting analysis of biomass usage & sources, energy & emissions. Also for Onion farmers in Senegal and Peanut farmers in Vietnam. A simple extrapolation made from the Kenya cook stove study, assuming 250M TLUDs, (Top-Lite Up Draft) Cook Stoves for the roughly 1 billion folks world wide now using open burning. A TLUD per Household of 4, producing 0.52 tons char/Household/yr, X 250M = 130 Mt Char/yr Showing sequestration of 130 Million tons of Biochar per year, could be achieved just from cooking. In terms of CO2e, these 250M Households reduce 825M Tons of CO2e annually. The cascading pulmonary health benefits for woman & children is the very thick icing on this 0.825 GtCO2e Soil Carbon Cake.
  • Getabu: I am searching for soya beans which matures less than four months. please let me know where to get them and contacts of the sellers. reply to rainbowrural@yahoo.com thank you. meroka
  • chrispin okumu: Our group partners with N2Africa in western kenya.https://www.facebook.com/pages/Livelihood-Environment-Agriculture-Food-LEAF-project/415038845239972?ref=hl