Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-MALAWI: Chilis Prompt Elephants to Cool Their Heels

Charles Mkoka

BLANTYRE, Jan 16 2004 (IPS) - Elephants and humans have long found themselves at loggerheads in Africa, and Malawi is no exception to this trend.

Communities in the southern Machinga and Balaka districts near Liwonde National Park have seen their crops destroyed by elephants, while some people have been trampled to death. This led to the construction of a perimeter fence around the 538 square kilometre park in the early 1990's.

However, a number of people complained that the fence prevented them from gathering wood and water in Liwonde, as they had previously done. Poachers who were trapping game and fish in the reserve also took exception to the new barrier, and the fence was vandalised. Ironically, the fence wire was used to make snares for catching animals.

A few years later, the stance of communities surrounding the park appears to have softened, and they have joined forces with government to build a new solar-powered fence. But, villagers are also exploring a more innovative way of keeping the elephants at bay: the planting of chili pepper plants.

Speaking from Liwonde National Park, Mathias Elisa – a Parks and Wildlife Department official who is responsible for education û said, – Observations conducted during chili production revealed that elephants keep diverting from areas where the…production is being done."

ôElephants hate the smell of chili, especially when the stems have been burnt. It appears they…distance themselves from where the chili is growing," he added.

The Partnership in Sustainable Natural Resource Management in Malawi, a U.S-funded group based in the commercial capital of Blantyre, has selected a number of communities to train in chili production. This follows similar ventures in South Africa and Zimbabwe, where chilis have proved effective in reducing conflict between humans and wildlife.

The National Smallholder Farmers of Malawi organisation has also provided assistance to villagers by showing them how to space, transplant and harvest chili plants. In addition, the growers have been given information about grading, storage and marketing.

Once harvested and graded, the chilis are sold to European countries û particularly Holland, Spain and Italy û where they are combined with paprika to make the powder used in pepper sprays.

Records kept by Liwonde National Park show that chili sales for 2002- 2003 resulted in a profit of 1,500 dollars for adjacent communities, or about 28 dollars per household. According to the United Nations Human Development Report for 2003, almost 42 percent of Malawi's population lives below the poverty line of a dollar a day.

Other communities near the reserve are now queuing up to join the programme. ôThe response has been overwhelming. Right now 13 new (chili growing) clubs have been established in…Machinga district," says Elisa, who coordinates chili project activities for the wildlife department.

Njahito club, on the eastern side of Liwonde, was the star performer in chili production last year. Ten women and 19 men from this community have started growing chilis.

Club Chairman Godfrey Mkwate says, ôWe are happy with the chili production project. Apart from reaping benefits economically through sales, the problems of elephants destroying our crops and property has also been minimised."

Park officials hope that the chili project, in addition to smoothing human-elephant relations, will lessen the demands which locals continue to place on Liwonde's plant and animal resources. As a result of the demand for wood and other items, the reserve has already been reduced in size by 10 square kilometres to meet the needs of surrounding communities.

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