Wrangles fueling destruction of flora and fauna at Kuti Community wildlife ranch

—Chiefs call for dialogue between Communities and Ranch management

By Owen Nyaka:

Disagreements over the sharing of proceeds from the natural resources at Kuti Community Wildlife Ranch (KCWR) have emerged, with communities surrounding the park, accusing park management of KCWR of reneging on the agreements contained in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the two sides over 20 years ago.

The development has fueled massive deforestation; poaching and charcoal burning within the protected wildlife ranch.

Funny Chidothi who has been Acting Traditional Authority Kuluunda admits the current destruction of flora and fauna at Kuti Community nature farm, which she said is a cause of serious concern. She has the reasons to be concerned because investigations have shown that a large chunk of the ranch which has been affected lies in her area.

Advises Kuluunda: “We need to address the situation with a sense of urgency. Since Kuti Ranch covers two traditional authorities of Kalonga and Kuluunda the two of us as traditional authorities should sit down and come up with By-Laws as a way of addressing this problem before it gets out of hand.”

At the center of the controversy is the initial five year co-management agreement between KCWR and the Permanent Resident Community living around the perimeter of the park which came into effect on 22nd January, 2001 and was later extended for ten years after its expiry.

According to the MOU the communities, through a co-management process, were supposed to take part in the management of the wildlife by not cutting down trees for firewood, protection of charcoal burning and controlling illegal poaching.

However, 20 years down the line the communities feel that the revenue has not been paid to Kuti Community Trust accounts by WPAM as such the angry villagers are also breaching the partnership obligations by damaging the flora and fauna of the protected wildlife ranch.

“The Fund is dry and that they are not benefiting anything from it. These funds, according to community members, are supposed to be used for corporate social responsibility (CSR) such as building of schools, health facilities, provision of water supply and many other needs of the communities”, allege one of the members privy to the Trust.

Investigations have revealed that Wildlife Producers and Hunters’ Association of Malawi (WPHAM) and the Permanent Resident Community living around the perimeter of KCWR signed a number of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) which according to the communities are not being adhered to. The communities claim they have not benefited from for such MOUs hence according to them they do not see any need to continue doing so.

Originally, the first five -year term MOU was signed on 22nd January, 2001 by the District Assembly, WPHAM representative a Mr. L.A Pitman, Senior Chiefs Kuluunda and Kalonga on behalf of the Permanent Resident surrounding KCWP with a no objection obtained from the Royal Danish Embassy endorsed by Counselor Henrick Nielsen.

The objective of the collaboration according to Article 5 of the agreement, was “to contribute to wildlife conservation and economic development by demonstrating that co-management in wildlife husbandry and utilisation is a viable use of land that is otherwise unsuitable for arable faming.” The aim under said article was, therefore, to develop a co-management scheme that would allow the Ranch Managers, the WPAM and the adjacent Community to develop a Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) partnership and the agreement to establish the rules of co-operation and revenue sharing basis.

States Article 4 of the MOU: “This agreement shall enter into force upon signature and remain valid until 5 years hence thereafter or unless another date is fixed with the agreement signed between the two parties. This agreement may be passed on to any subsequent new owner or leaseholder of KUTI Ranch.”

While confirming the existence of this MOUs Senior chief Kalonga said he is equally worried that not much has been done to the community with regards to what was earlier agreed in the agreements.

“We indeed signed the MOU but from the look of things it appears it is no longer being followed. Even as chiefs we have been reduced into spectators,” said Senior Chief Kalonga.

Section 22A of the National Parks and Wildlife Act (2017) provides for Local Community Participation and private sector involvement in conservation and management of Wildlife.

While Section 22 C (g) of the same act prescribes a mechanism for sharing costs and benefits between department of National Parks and Wildlife management Authority. According to the Act Wildlife Management Authority are defined as local community organisations or other private organisations established for the purpose of promoting local community participation in conserving and management of wildlife.

But, KCWR Manager Laurie Webb could not be drawn to comment on the MOUs. Webb, however, confirmed the massive vandalism and destruction of the environment within the protected area of Kuti Ranch. Webb said they had solicited the help of the Village Headmen and Police without any success.

“We have solicited the help of the Malawi Defense Force who have been marginally more successful – although erratic. We have also solicited the help of Department of National Parks and Wildlife without any success.

“There is a group newly formed by one village in particular who with the help of our own scouts and guards are managing the situation. We have and continue to prosecute the trespassing offenders with fines and prison sentences ranging from two and half (2½) years to 4 years imprisonment in the last 6 – 8 weeks. We seem to be getting on top of the situation slowly,” says Webb.

But Levison Kathumba, 48, of Namatewu village, Group Village Head Chiunjiza in Traditional Authority Kalonga said the situation is still tense. He recounted an incident where his biological brother Falisoni Levisoni who once worked as a guard at Kuti Ranch was chased, beaten severely up to admission at Salima district hospital when poachers spotted him moving along the dirty road of the northern corridor of the ranch.

“The relationship is sour especially villagers surrounding the northern part of the ranch but in this side of ours (southern part) we still respect the boundaries,” said Kathumba.

He, said due to massive vandalism farmers around his village did not harvest last season because there has been massive escape of wild animals because of the damaged wire fence.

Undercover investigations reveal massive destruction is being done at Kapanda, Mbalame and Mapiko villages and that charcoal burning is being massively done along the entire dirty road which divides the Park; northern and southern parts.

Another source familiar with the agreements said the second MOU of ten (10) year period was upgraded and signed in 2007 in order to strengthen the boundary community capacity and formalize its role in the co-management.

“It was also aimed at developing the southern section of the ranch as a venue for predominantly nature-based tourism, in this way building a successful model of private sector, co-management of wildlife for wider application in Malawi,” said source who pleaded to remain anonymous.

Under article seven (7) of the MOU parties agreed that the profits after all lease fees, costs and capital deductions should be placed in a Trust Fund to be apportioned equitably and according to each parties input.

WPAM according to the original MOU was expected to get 5% of the revenue for re-investment in the Ranch, the Community to get 90% divided to the villagers proportionate to the percentage of the boundary that they protect and to be used for community social development projects such as schools, water supply, clinics and electrification and the District Assembly should get 5% to cover cost of services provided to the Ranch and Community.

However, according to the source the revenue shares were negotiated and adjusted to 50% each but WPHAM still vehemently rejected to share any revenue.

“Unlike in the past there were a lot of alternative livelihoods aiming to help communities improve food security and household income while reducing their dependency on the natural resources within Kuti Ranch.

Under Kuti Community Trust, seedlings and breeding stock were given to villagers that showed interest, there was beekeeping, fruit drying, tree nursery, banana nursery, rearing of edible rodents and guinea fowl rearing.,” disclosed the source.

Originally, KCWR was a cattle ranch owned by Malawi’s first President late Kamuzu Banda. And with the advent of multi-party democracy the ranch came under the Agriculture Research of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Covering the area of over 3,000 hectares, Kuti Ranch had indigenous animals such as kudu, bushbuck, bush pig, duiker, oribi, reedbuck, grysbok as well as very small predators such as serval, civet, genet, African wild cat and various species of mongoose before it was privatized and taken over by WPHAM on August 2000.

WPHAM is a membership based, interested organizations, formed in 1995 as an association of licensed hunters and wildlife producers, resident inside and outside Malawi. And it has over 70 paying members. It is holding title deeds to and manages the KCWR which is cadastral plan SD/5017.

On the other hand, the Permanent Resident Community under Trustees Incorporation registered a decade ago as ‘Kuti Community’ as an association whose objectives are to develop the trust into a well-managed, self-financing and sustainable legal entity to ensure sustainable utilization and facilitate equitable access to, and fair sharing of costs and benefits arising from resources (both natural and financial) in and around KCWR in collaboration with WPHAM.

Through various donors, animals like nyala, wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, sable, impala, waterbuck, warthog, and giraffe were introduced in the ranch under management of WPHAM. The park also boasts a prolific birdlife and different species of reptiles, snakes and amphibians.

But with this may soon be a thing of the past if the current massive poaching and deforestation is left unchecked, a development that worries District Forestry Officer for Salima Adam Jason.

“I tried to intervene. But when I visited the area I was told off by KCWR management that it is a private entity,” said Jason.

Jason, however, pushed the issues to the sister Department of Parks and Wildlife whom he said could be better placed to comment since the private entity has also wild animals that are being attacked.

But while confirming the existence of the problem Director of Parks and Wildlife Bright Kumchedwa wasn’t sure about the magnitude of poaching at Kuti Community Wildlife Ranch.

“I know there have been problems of poaching at the ranch but to what levels I cannot certify because I am not directly involved in the management of the reserve,” said Kumchewa

However, Senior Chief Kalonga admits that poaching and destruction KCWR has reached unprecedented levels but was quick to say that the problem wouldn’t have reached this far if local leaders and surrounding communities were actively involved.

“Unfortunately Kuti management doesn’t want us including the district commissioner and police to get involved,” said Kalonga.

According to the MOU signed in 2001, amongst the partnership obligations of the community was to appoint Community Liaison Officers (CLOs) for each Area Development Committee (ADC) who shall be the go-between the Ranch Management and the Community and ensuring efficient communication, resolve any conflict and train the Community in Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBRM), But it appears these CLOs are no longer relevant Kuti management if Kalonga’s sentiments are anything to go by.

“The destruction is the result of the Kuti management’s refusal to work with community liaison committees and the officers. When I tried to intervene they even challenged me that they were going to deploy army to help them quell the situation. The situation is now chaotic,” lamented the senior chief.

However, the senior chief believes the situation could be amicably resolved through contact and dialogue. He said that he is ready to be part of mediation talks as a way of mending the relationship between the community and Kuti Management.

“Let us sit down to iron out our differences before the situation gets out of hand. The chiefs, District Commissioners and district forestry officer and you media could help in mediating the situation,” said Kalonga.

Unless something is done, the tension between the communities and the managers of the Ranch is likely going to threaten the survival of wildlife. But as the chiefs propose dialogue is the only solution that could save Kuti Ranch from further destruction.

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