Population, Health and Environment Nexus: Discussions at Mbando Village

by Bosco Chinkonda, Deepa Pullanikkatil, Helen Todd, Boyson Moyo and Stewart Paul

The environment has been degraded and the population is growing at higher rate. Because of high birthrates leading to high population growth, resources are depleted and people have no option but to go cut trees and burn charcoal up the hill.” These were the words of Chief Mbando at our meeting in Mbando village in April this year.

Chief Mbando had quite simply articulated the links between population growth, competition for resources and their impacts, including environmental degradation. On 9 April 2019, seated under a mango tree, about 35 people from Mbando village talked with visitors from the Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA) network about the nexus of “Population, Health and Environment” (PHE) by focusing on a micro level: their village.

Discussion under a tree in Mbando village on the Population, Health and Environment nexus

The discussions were facilitated by Art and Global Health Center Africa (ArtGlo), a non-governmental organization which harnesses the power of the arts to nurture creative leadership and ignite bold conversations and actions in many sectors, including health. Here in Mbando, they used music and drama to provoke conservations. They were introduced to the community of Mbando community by Abundance, a small non-profit that has been working in this village since 2016. Both Abundance and ArtGlo are members of Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA), an international network which believes in a multidisciplinary and integrated approach to development. Abundance has taken and advocated for an integrated approach to development. However, developmental and environmental projects have historically taken a sectoral approach, without integrating key aspects that shape the lives of the communities the projects aim to serve. Through the PHE discussion at Mbando village, many insights were revealed on the deeper relationships between population, health and environment.

The population of Malawi has grown from 4 million in 1964 (when it attained independence from the British) to almost 19 million in 2017. The villagers of Mbando understand that some of the challenges they face stem from high population growth. “We are facing challenges because of high fertility rates. This has contributed to environmental degradation,” says Chief Mbando. When Abundance began working in Mbando in 2016, there were 95 households. “Today, hardly three years later, there are 105 households in the village,” said Moses Phulusa, Abundance’s Community Coordinator in Mbando. Family planning initiatives are present in the community, but there is high resistance to uptake, especially among the men, due to societal expectations and religious beliefs.

With increased population, the available farmland is shrinking, which the community observes is leading to food shortages and nutritional challenges. In addition to increasing pressure on land due to large numbers of people, the village faces extreme weather events. The community mentioned the recent Cyclone Idai and the heavy rains that followed, which caused many rice and maize fields to be flooded. Mbando village is near the shores of Lake Chilwa, Malawi’s second largest lake. “Lake Chilwa has been drying because in the past years we have got less rainfall. But still there is nothing good over there. Even catches of fish are very rare. Only a few species are available,” said a resident. “This is leading to malnutrition. As you know, there are proteins in fish,” said another resident. ArtGlo encouraged Mbando villagers to act out the challenges they face; some of the acts highlighted that Lake Chilwa is silting, a problem the community attributed to poor farming practices and deforestation.

Malawi’s deforestation trends are worrying: a rate of 33,000 hectares of forest lost per year. Chief Mbando pointed towards the Chikala hills, which border Mbando village. Due to unemployment and the lack of livelihood options, residents are resorting to making charcoal to eke out a living. “In the Chikala hills, trees are being depleted due to charcoal burning activities as a livelihood means. Times are so desperate that women are also burning charcoal.

Dramas were then performed to depict what the future might look like. ArtGlo facilitators pointed to a young child and provoked discussions about how the environment and human development status would be when that child is an adult. The participants said that there would be a strain on the public resources such as medicine in the nearby health facilities due to the large population increase. Others said Mbando would be a community without herbal medicine due to high levels of deforestation (many herbal medicines came from forests). They also pointed out that it is always the most vulnerable members of the community who are affected the most, such as the elderly. Some feared they would be abused due to the scramble for land – attributed to deforestation. They predicted high levels of deviance and crime due to increased population and a lack of resources for economic functions, which could cause increased conflicts. “The habitats of animals would be depleted”, said another participant.

The same community that listed the challenges were asked to create solutions and act them out in drama performances. Solutions included sensitizing the youth about these issues, starting in primary school. Two people who were part of this meeting were from a local drama group and took the lead to create dramatic performances to create awareness amongst the youth. “The adults in the community, they have experienced the better times and could be an inspiration for the younger ones to take initiative. Chiefs hold the authority over the community and can lead some of the initiatives,” said participants. They recognized the need for various sectors and players to work together to achieve greater synergy and be able to address the interconnections between the sectors. They also said that there is need for frequent community gatherings, as engaging the community to come up with solutions is the way forward. “Coming together regularly to discuss issues such as deforestation, drought and population growth would help the village recognize the urgency of solutions as simple as tree planting”, said one participant. “Even in terms of family planning, you could see that men were opposing it. So if men took part in family planning initiatives, population growth could be put in check”, said another participant. Ultimately, the key message that came out of this meeting was that Population, Health and Environment have many links and that all stakeholders need to engage in discussions and cooperate in an integrated manner.

The meeting ended with a brainstorming exercise, where the villagers listed NGOs that implement projects in their village. They included Safe, an NGO which built the Community Based Child Care Centre and engages the Chief and elderly on projects; the Family Planning Association of Malawi, which works with youth clubs on family planning and Sexual and Reproductive Health; the One Acre Fund, which works on reforestation; Goal Malawi, which works on reforestation and family planning; and Abundance, which works in a variety of areas including education, literacy, trainings, skills development, support for health services and environmental conservation. It was agreed that these institutions need to work together so as not to duplicate efforts and to facilitate greater synergy. This is the essence of the SFA network too: greater engagement with and within communities, working together for the greater good and locally driven solutions for a greater understanding of the complex nature of community development and sustainability.

To view Chanco TV – Malawi on the Rise coverage of the event, click here.