Course:FRST370/Projects/Community Forestry in Ntchisi, Malawi

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Community Forestry in Ntchisi Forest Reserve, Ntchisi District, Malawi

Location of Malawi, Africa

This case study examines the co-management strategy in Ntchisi forest reserve in Malawi.  The implementation of community-based forest management program followed a history of attempted top-down colonial frameworks of fortress forest management until the mid 1990s (Zulu 2013).  The European Union Commission funded the first major decentralization of forest management with the ‘Improved Forest Management for Sustainable Livelihoods Programme’ (IFMSLP), following paradigm policy shifts reacting to a post-colonial natural resource degradation crisis (Zulu 2013). The program’s fundamental aim is to improve livelihoods of local communities of whom roughly two thirds are directly dependent on forest resources (in the form of timber and NTFPs) while 71% live below the poverty line (The World Bank 2017). Although the aims of each community forestry program vary depending on the individual initiative, the consistent goals involve improving ‘sustainability’ in both livelihood and natural resource management.  Thus far, the forest community-management model has had varying results with general improvements required in empowerment of community members in decision-making and lack of accountability for leaders (Chinangwa 2017).



Ntchisi district, central Malawi

Ntchisi reserve forest is located in the Ntchisi district in central Malawi.  Before colonization by the British in 1891, the district area had been inhabited for over 1000 years (Zulu 2008). Following this, Malawi underwent a top-down colonial management decision until severe deforestation prompted changes to resource management. Forest reserve areas are predominantly Miombo woodland.  The ecosystem has high biodiversity and endemic species and comprises some of the last remaining Indigenous Malawi forest (Ryan n.d.). Primary anthropogenic cause of deforestation and habitat degradation include land conversion to agriculture and logging for timber and fuel wood. Trees in the Miombo woodland have a low growth rate, low timber yield and low commercial value (Ryan n.d.).  The reserve has an area of roughly 9 720 ha and is one of five reserve forests in the country.  13% of Ntchisi forest reserve is forest and comprises roughly 6% of the total district area (Bekele 2001)(Chinangwa et. al 2016).  British colonialists established Ntchisi in 1924 by after customary inhabitants that lived in the area were forcibly moved from the area (Zulu 2013).  The establishment of the reserve reflects colonial values of top down exclusionary forest management that devalues customary tenure and forced adoption of colonial governance systems.  Today, Malawi has dedicated roughly 17% of its total land to conservation initiatives in the form forest reserves (870 052 ha) (Mauambeta 2010). Community management initiatives attempt to combat national demand for solutions to population growth and high population density. These pressures lead to demands for land conversion in the form of agricultural expansion and energy demands in the form of fuel wood (Feder 2012).  The demand for fuel wood over alternative sources of energy is due to lack of availability of other sources and cultural preference for cooking with wood (European Commission 2015).  Although wood-based products are renewable resource, unsustainable harvest mechanisms provide 45% of Malawi’s wood supply.  As a result, the ecosystem is unable to keep up with demand and degradation increases (European Commission 2015). 

As of 2017, 71% of Malawians live below the poverty line of subsistence below $1.90 per day (The World Bank 2017).  As well, 50% of the citizens of Malawi are illiterate with very low food security and high rates of poverty (Blaikie 2006). As well, although education is compulsory, the average number of years of education in the Ntchisi district is just 5.48 years (Chinangwa 2014).  85% of the Malawian population is rural and the economy is based heavily in natural resources (Ellis et. al 2003).  As a result, there is significant pressure on the country’s natural resources for energy and agriculture as over 90% of Malawi’s energy derives from fuelwood (Feder 2012).  Within the rural population, 85% occupy customary land, indicating long standing and highly involved connection to the land (Blaikie 2006). 

Historical Ecosystem Degradation in Malawi

Area of miombo woodland

Prior to colonization, Malawians employed “shifting agriculture” for sustainable natural resource management.  In 1924, British colonial management of the land forcibly excluded groups with customary tenure and Ntchisi forest reserve.  This resulted in increased separation of communities and traditional land management techniques (Zulu 2008).  In addition, establishment of colonial systems shifted toward country-wide emphasis on high- yield agriculture and away from subsistence based sustainable systems that had been in place previously.  With no regard to effects of increased production on local ecological resilience and decreased awareness of the effect of high production on a local level, ecosystem degradation increased substantially (Feder 1997).  Following seven decades of colonial management, Malawi gained independence from Britain in 1964.  However, forest reserves were still under exclusionary state management and Malawian’s had been disrupted from traditional practices for enough time that reintegration proved increasingly difficult (Feder 1997)(Mauambeta et. al 2010). Malawi enacted the Forest Act in 1964 to combat ecosystem degradation through community-based afforestation (Feder 1997).  However, this initiative underperformed because of general unwillingness to participate due to lack of incentives, lack of empowerment of local actors and continuing perception of forests as unsusceptible to degradation (Feder 1997).  As a result, national forest degradation increased and space for national alternative management techniques began to be explored.

As of the 1990s, extremely high rates of poverty in Malawi resulted in international pressure for changes in forest management techniques to improve livelihood and ecology in the area (Feder 1997). Following recommendations from the FAO and emerging popularity of community management as a means to alleviate both environmental degradation and poverty, the Malawian government began to decentralize using a variety of policies (Feder 1997).  Community based natural resource management (CBNRM) plans have been promoted as able to improve resilience economically and ecologically through decentralization of the existing top down post-colonial governance system (Zulu 2008).

Tenure and Historical Management Regimes

Forest reserves in Malawi are under state governance.  However, forest blocks within the reserve operate under time-limited tenure agreements that grant use rights for community management with local villages (Mauambeta et. al 2010).  The Malawian Department of Forestry administers co-management agreements through funding provided by the European Union Commission.  Local participation in community management programs is voluntary and time limited.  However, the system requires participation in forest management practices including implementation of proposed plans and stipulated by the agreement, local residence and attendance at meetings (Jumbe and Angelson 2007).

Policy and Programs

National Forest Policy (1997) and Forest Act (1997)

The National Forest Policy states that its primary aim is “to sustain the contribution of the national forest resources to the quality of life in the country by conserving the resources for the benefit of the nation”. The policy planned to achieve this by afforesting degraded land through teaching resident communities on customary land how to plant trees and increasing the involvement of local villages in resource management.  This was primarily done by increasing established institutions for community management and decentralizing governance through enhancing village natural resource committees and involving them in drafting management plans (cite- Kamoto et. al 2008).   The Forest Department granted full rights for subsistence-based extraction of timber to local communities on customary lands (Mauambeta 2010).  The National Forest Policy is widely regarded as having failed due to staffing shortages and lack of funding that lead to incomplete survey of participating communities.  As well, willingness for community involvement from participating villages resulted from lack of reimbursement to participating individuals for work planting trees that did not benefit them economically (Feder 1997).  As well, the government’s goal of revitalizing degraded forests conflicted with alternative demands from local people for the conversion of forested land to agricultural land (Feder 1997).

IFMSLP (Improved Forest Management for Sustainable Livelihood Programme)

The IFMSLP (Improved Forest Management for Sustainable Livelihood Programme) is an initiative funded by the European Union Development Fund (EDF) provides monetary aid to African, Caribbean and Pacific Countries including Malawi (European Commission, n.d.).  This program was the first “major co-management project” (Zulu 2013).  The program is  established in two phases.  The first phase was enacted from 2006 to 2009, had a budget of  €19.68 million and stated that its objective was “to improve the livelihoods of forest dependent communities through the participatory management of forests both in forest reserves and on customary land..”(Zulu 2013).  Phase two was enacted from 2011 to 2015 and provided a budget of €2 million.  The second phase pared down the objectives of phase one and cited its aim as “to contribute to the reduction of poverty and the conservation of forests in Malawi” (Zulu 2013).

Ongoing Community Management Projects

Ntchisi forest reserve is state-owned land.  Access and co- management agreements are delivered by the Department of Forestry to communities living on the specified land block. A committee elected by the village is responsible for overseeing management and punishment. A forest co-management agreement for Ntchisi was signed on September 7, 2018.  The co- management agreement provides land use rights to those who have customary rights and reside on the land in exchange for monitoring.

Mandwe Forest Block (January 2014-2019)

Tenure: owned by the state, time limited use rights allocated to the community

Primary community interests: NTFPs (mushrooms, caterpillars, fruit), timber (fuel wood, poles)

"Overall objective: To manage, protect, conserve and utilize the forestry resources both woody products and non-woody products... in a sustainable way for domestic and commercial uses so as to improve the lives of Mandwe VDC."

Rules and penalties (specified fees) for infraction and an action plan for sustainable management are outlined in the 'Mandwe Block Management Plan'. Elected village committees are responsible for monitoring and enforcement.

Other Examples

Sambakusi Forest Block

Chenthe Forest Block

Nyanja Forest Block

Affected Stakeholders

Definition: “Is or is likely to be subject to the effects of activities in a locally important or customarily- claimed forest area” (Bulkan 2018). Generally, a stakeholder is classified as affected if decisions regarding the land will directly affect their livelihood.

Community Members

Local communities within co management agreements facilitated in Ntchisi use the forest for both wood and non-timber forest products (NTFPs). Over 20 NTFPs have been identified as desired to be extracted from the forests including edible mushrooms, edible caterpillars, herbalist medicine, fuel wood, honey and fruit (Bekele 2001).  Wood products extracted include timber, charcoal and poles (Improved Forest Livelihoods for Sustainable Forest Management 2014). Community members use harvested materials for both subsistence and selling (Jumbe and Angelson 2007).  In addition to their economic value, many forests have cultural significance to local communities and are used as burial grounds (Bekele 2001).

Committee Members

Committee members are local members of the community that have been elected to participate in community forestry (Chinangwa 2014). The committee is responsible for decentralized decision and speak for the community. Committee members have the same interests in obtaining forest products for subsistence and selling as community members. However, they hold more power and responsibility in decision-making, and enforcement of policy (Chinangwa 2014). 

Traditional Leaders

Traditional leaders are leaders of the community that have been appointed separately from the community management agreement (Chinangwa et. al 2017).  Although they are not directly related to the co-management contract, they hold high power in rule enforcement and following among the community.  Their interests include obtaining forest products as well as management of the community as a whole (Chinangwa et. al 2017).  

Interested Stakeholders

Definition: “has shown an interest, or is known to have an interest, in the activities in a forest area” (Bulkan 2018).  Generally, interested stakeholders are individuals or groups whose livelihoods are not directly affected by management decisions made on a particular section of land.  Although these groups may be invested in the outcome, they typically have alternative means for income and can subsist regardless of management options. 


The government of Malawi’s primary interests are alleviation of poverty in participating communities and reducing degradation of ecosystems (Blaikie 2006).  The government holds a high amount of power administered through the Department of Forestry, but has low interest as their employees are salaried and the outcome of management in specified areas does not impact livelihoods directly.  Government is responsible for implementing programming and initiatives and holds tenure of Ntchisi Forest Reserve.  However, the government is susceptible to political pressure and funding changes from the European Union.  

Timber Companies

Timber companies responsible for harvesting wood resources in the form of charcoal and wood are interested in the community management agreement as they are interested in economic gain from the resource.  However, as the site of their production can be moved to other areas, they are a low interest, not affected party. The companies can decide if they are to engage with illegal logging in an area, but are generally unable to change legislation.

Timber Workers

Timber workers are hired by timber companies to carry out forestry practices.  As they will be moved to an area that requires them, their livelihood is not explicitly dependent on the management of a specific forest block.

European Union

The European Union Commission is primarily interested in alleviation of poverty of participating villages and conservation of resources (European Commission 2015). As the funding body for the IFMSLP (Improved Forest Management for Sustainable Livelihoods Programme), the commission has high power and low interest in the matter as their livelihoods are not directly dependent on management of specific forest blocks.

Small Entrepreneurs

Small entrepreneurs are stakeholders primarily interested in the market commodification of NTFPs supplied by communities in co-managed areas and business opportunities surrounding land management prospects (Chinangwa et. al 2017).  However, they hold little power and as they can retain the commodities elsewhere, their livelihoods are not directly affected by the fate of a forest on a specific co-management block.

Miombo woodland


Environmentalists are stakeholders interested in conservation of the Miombo woodlands for retaining endemic species, reducing soil erosion and acting as a carbon sink (Jew et. al 2016).  However, they have little power and the land management in Ntchisi does not directly affect their livelihoods.



Impacts of Co-Management on Conservation

Community managed plots had a higher tree density when compared to other forest reserve areas.  However, species richness did not change substantially between community managed and government managed areas.  Regrowth in the form of seedlings and saplings increased by 47%.  As well, 73% of surveyed community members responded that implementation of community management strategies improved forest health (Chinangwa et. al, 2017).

Impacts of Co-Management on Livelihood

The Department of International Development defines sustainability in livelihood as diverse and thus resilient to stress, and no erosion of natural resources (Kollmair and Gamper 2002). Desired impacts on livelihood by a community management program include increased resilience through diversification of income from community participants resulting in increased sustainability. From participation in community management initiatives, 32% of surveyed respondents in Ntchisi stated that they had been able to access new income sources. Consequentially, 29% indicated that they were able to increase their material assets as a result (Chinangwa livelihoods and welfare impacts 2016).  A household survey of participating community members was also administered.  The results demonstrated that 63% of respondents believed that the community management program instated had negligible impacts on their livelihood (Chinangwa et. al 2016).                  

Issues and Challenges in Community Forestry Implementation

Issues regarding the implementation of community management initiatives can be due to moral challenges underlying the structure of community based forest management or logistical challenges regarding practicality of implementation- language, interest, understanding.  Zulu (2013) and Chinangwa et. al (2017) stated that the format in which community-based forest management is implemented can unknowingly reinforce colonial systems through top- down, authoritarian implementation.  Logistical issues include lack of accountability of leaders, lack of awareness of the village bureaucratic system among citizens and settling and prioritizing the diverse needs of community members with potentially conflicting priorities of governing and third party (such as funding initiatives in the EU) stakeholders (Hatlebakk 2012). Goals of decreasing poverty by increasing diversity and sustainability in community members’ livelihoods do not always increased desired indicators of forest health (Chinangwa et. al  2016­). Therefore, community management success is heavily dependent on situation. 


Hatlebakk (2012) recommends that community management plans refocus attention away from management of wood-based products toward commodification of an array of NTFPs.  As NTFPs are diverse, emphasis on management for increase in yield and cultivation of NTFPs in local forests could be a more effective tool in reducing degradation and improving ecosystem health (Melese 2016).  Communities may benefit by receiving help with integration into economic systems by selling of collected products may allow investment for wealth and diversification of wealth indicators such as material possessions and belongings (Chinangwa 2014). As well, increase in emphasis on education of communities could increase community support for co-management plans and empower people to participate in decision making and alternative management schemes. As well, every year of education increases the rate of acceptance of co- management programs (Chinangwa 2014).  As participation and acceptance of community management initiatives is a major barrier to success in programming, subsidization of education may increase rates of success.  Empowerment of local communities in decision-making can also be increased by public hearings and audit sessions (Chinangwa et. al 2017).  Additionally, as the primary demand for energy derived from wood is cultural, work can be done to increase preferences for alternative fuel sources (European Commission 2015).


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