UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Mount Mulanje: Economic Empowerment of Disadvantaged Women
The Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust supported marginalised women to jointly grow and sell agricultural products. This enables the women to earn a living without relying on the natural resources of the Biosphere Reserve.
The aim of #SOSAfricanHeritage is to contribute to preserving independent and sustainable organisational structures at African World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves with the participation of civil society as well as to secure spaces dedicated to education for global citizenship, sustainability and cultural diversity.
The Mount Mulanje Biosphere Reserve is located in the southwest of Malawi, close to the border with Mozambique. It covers a 26 by 22 kilometre mountainous area that rises steeply from the surrounding plains. The altitude of the reserve ranges from 600 metres above sea level to the highest point of Sapitwa Peak at 3,002 metres. A large part of the massif consists of steep rock faces interrupted by ravine valleys with rainforest in the south and east and dry brachystegia forests on the northern and western slopes.
The area has a rich fauna and flora with many endemic species. The Mulanje cedar (Widdringtonia whyteii), Malawi’s national tree, can only be found on the slopes of the Mulanje massif and is listed as "critically endangered" on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The wood is highly valued, especially for boat building, because of its aromatic, slightly toxic oils that make it very resistant to insect infestation and fungi. However, massive illegal, unsustainable logging of the Mulanje cedar has led to a sharp decline in its population. Some endemic animal species are also threatened by the deforestation.
Due to the high rainfall and fertile soils, the surroundings of the Biosphere Reserve are densely populated. People not only farm and keep livestock, they also extract wood, medicinal plants and other products from the forest to make a living. Ecotourism is another important source of income for the local population. Despite the high agricultural productivity in the region, famines due to natural disasters are common. As a result, people are forced to use the natural resources of the mountains.
Restrictions due to the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic had a very negative impact on the economic development of the region and has especially affected the tourism sector. This posed great challenges for the local population to make a living. Marginalised women, who have lost their numerous small employment opportunities due to the pandemic, were hit particularly hard. Their only source of income was the sale of charcoal, for the production of which they collected firewood in the forests every day. Since schools were closed due to the pandemic, their children often assisted them in this task, which further increased illegal wood extraction. As a result, the cedar forests on the mountain slopes were severely threatened.
Relief through community-based small businesses
In this context, the #SOSAfricanHeritage project of the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust aimed to provide marginalised women with a viable livelihood as an alternative to wood collection, enabling them to escape the poverty trap. The women could participate in community-based economic activities to earn a daily cash income, accumulate personal savings and contribute to a group capital fund.
In groups, the women first learned to plant vegetable gardens in order to provide themselves with food and sell surpluses on the local market. Since most of the vegetables previously available in Mulanje are grown in the highlands about 50 kilometres away and are therefore comparatively expensive, the locally grown vegetables sell well. For this purpose, a shelter was built for the women at the urban market, where they can meet and sell vegetables and other products. As a next step, the women could work on a communally managed smallholding, where a garden with fruit trees was planted and a variety of agroforestry seedlings was grown for fuel and household needs.
In addition, a range of agricultural and natural resource processing equipment has been purchased for the women to use for new ideas and small commercial ventures. In order to realize these ventures, the women were granted micro-credits. Each of the groups also received a small solar panel, a simple laptop and a smartphone, which they could use after training to improve their learning and interaction skills.
The project enabled marginalised women to improve their standard of living, empowered them to contribute confidently to the development of their village and motivated them to jointly undertake efforts to protect the natural resources of the mountains.
On the initiative of the Federal Foreign Office and the Goethe-Institut, an International Relief Fund was set up in summer 2020 to provide rapid support to cultural and educational organisations abroad during the Covid-19 pandemic. With its special support programme #SOSAfricanHeritage, the German Commission for UNESCO is part of the Relief Fund consortium.
- Site: Mount Mulanje
- Country: Malawi
- Type of Site: UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
- Year of inscription: 2000