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Glimmer of Hope for Embattled African Lake

Charles Mkoka is a freelance writer based in Malawi

Unsustainable utilization practices on Lake Chiuta - which is shared by the two Southern African states of Malawi and Mozambique - and the poor state of policing and control of fishing activities have led to conservation conflicts which are rocking the management of the African lake.

A glimmer of hope, however, appears more evident as a result of continued consultations by authorities among communities that derive benefits from lake that lies on the frontier of the two countries.

The local conflicts have arisen from differences over the management of the Lake by fisheries authorities from the two neighboring countries. While Malawi is implementing conservation efforts to ensure sustainable fisheries management, the Mozambique side is relatively unchecked. The scenario has created fears that the lake resources will be subjected to over-exploitation, resulting in reduced fish stocks in the long run.

While Malawi and Mozambique share Lake Chiuta, the fishing policies and regulations for the two countries are different and the two countries have different enforcement capacities. This has been another source of conflict as there have been contentions on such issues as fish species, fish sizes to catch, close seasons, demarcated fish sanctuaries, net gear size and type as well as methods of fishing.

"Since the advent of colonial rule, fisheries management in Malawi has been based on a centralized approach," said Friday Njaya, Divisional Fisheries Manager for Southern Malawi. "Management decisions have been made with little or no consultation with the user community. Biological consideration informed much of the policy, legislative and resource management outcomes."
 
Starting in 1994, however, there has been renewed interest in the involvement of local communities in fisheries management through participation. One outcome of the Lake Chiuta crisis has been the formation of community based fisheries management committee such as Beach Village Committee (BVC) and Fisheries Association (FA), among others.
 
These communal groups have been formed in all the three major lake areas of Malawi. This follows the recent passing of a new Fisheries Management Act that provides for the establishment of co-management initiatives and, through a decentralization policy, allocates activities to be done at district level. The fisheries co-management program has been a model example where local communities involved in the management of fisheries resources can help change the situation for the better.

According to Transborder Dialogue, the official newsletter of the Southern Africa Network for Transboundary Natural Resources Management (TBNRM), the countries sharing the lake have their own policies and regulations governing the use and management of fisheries resources in Lake Chiuta. Fishermen have therefore tended to take advantage of the side where regulations are regarded "weak."

"Before the collaborative management approach," said Village chief Asibu Saute Ngokwe, "communities were being undermined when it came to discussing issues in their localities. Organization came to implement activities without consulting the village leaders. What they did not realize is that as leaders we can resolve our problems. All we want is to be given a chance to choose our own destiny."
 
A recent community dialogue between Malawi and Mozambique that was convened by the Malawi Fisheries department has demonstrated that community involvement is helpful in deriving solutions to natural resources management. The dialogue was aimed at developing a common approach to resolving the conflict and identifying community level institutions that will implement and monitor agreed strategies. The communities recognized the different fishing practices used in both countries, including the use of different types of nets.

After years of tension over fishing practices and access to resources along the lake, local fisherman from the two sides have agreed on strategies for their respective countries that promise to deliver a common approach to fisheries management in Lake Chiuta.
 
Only through transborder local dialogues have these two communities begun to resolve this issue and wait for further discussions at policy and ministerial levels. Because local communities have been intimately involved in the identification of problems and the development of solutions, this network will act as a case study in addressing further border disputes in southern Africa. (WRI Features, 670 words)

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