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Day 5 Thursday 27th September – Boards, Secret Clubs and a Single Malt Ecosystem Service

October 4, 2012
by Guy Poppy

In order to maintain the energy of the group, today involved a diverse range of activities, including meeting with our Malawian Advisory Board. Prior to this, Felix and Miro presented work on Tipping points and how we could incorporate this important topic into the ASSETS project. This very serious topic cannot help but bring humour as the team felt the tipping point of productivity was being reached through our long and daily meetings – time for a different afternoon strategy. In serious terms, the project has a real opportunity to link the social and ecological concepts around tipping points, which should have a significant impact on the whole conceptual basis of this area. Hopefully this can be achieved in a similar way that Kate Rayworth from Oxfam has linked social foundation needs into Rockstrom et al ideas on planetary boundaries.

The meeting with the board, well the two which we were able to attend on this occasion, was very useful and I feel important in ensuring wider impact of our work. The board members were very well placed to help us develop our Theory of Change and should be able to help with the communication and dissemination in Malawi.  It was the first time I had been called a Village Headman, as Sosten introduced me as the project leader to his VC  – the Chief! The CEO of the energy company outlined how the lack of reliable electricity coupled with reluctance to change in behavior, resulted in people continuing to use firewood to cook, even though it’s more expensive and far more damaging to the environment. This practice in turn affects the reliability of electricity from the dams, due to changes in water flow caused by deforestation. Thus, the vicious circle and wicked problem continues… It will be important to see how our research may help, in any way, address this issue, but it highlights the importance of attitude and human behavior. Towards the end of the meeting, he was called to say Zomba and lost half its power and thus the reliability issue came to the fore once again!

During the afternoon, the social scientists worked as a group to generate timelines for their work – the project was finally in full flow, and the natural scientists identified data sources and a road ahead for the modeling work. This included discovering about the secret club who own certain forests where they obtain spiritual and cultural services. Some have tried infiltrating these clubs to find more about them, but getting the data might be tricky – we volunteered Simon to join, but perhaps he would be better employed in Southampton. The key now was to steer these groups forward whilst keeping the cross-talk successfully developed so far in the ASSETS project. After a highly productive few hours, we retreated to the market for some relaxation time.

The market was not as full-on as I was expecting, but that was nice considering this was a relaxation part of the week. The eclectic mix of ware on show was stimulating to all of your senses and I bought some gifts for my family. The evening was completed by a lovely team meal at Dominoes restaurant, which is owned by Clement – head of Forestry. We shared the ecosystem services prize of Single Malt whisky which I won last year from ESPA in producing the best explanation of why ecosystem services are important for a London taxi driver. I cannot recall exactly what I said now but it was something about the food, water, energy and health you currently have are due to ecosystem services – if we continue to use them like we are, we will need to colonize a new planet. Thus, we have the choice of either discovering how to get to another livable planet or be more sustainable and manage our ecosystem services better.

Day 4 Wednesday 26th September- Three steps forward and two back and TV coverage

October 4, 2012
by Guy Poppy

Today was always going to be a tough day in many ways.  Some important decisions crucial for the successful delivery of the 4 year project needed to be made and some of us were going to be interviewed for a 25 minute Environmental TV documentary covering our project on Malawian TV. If I did not think the day was going to be long and challenging, I was reminded of that by the reappearance of the giant spider in my shower – even I found this one too big to remove and thus decided to shower whenever they were not on the wall by the shampoo bottle.

The morning was spent wrestling with the study site selection and the usual discussions relating to the best design for the ecosystem services, the PRA and household surveys and finally, and not to be ignored, the ability of working at the sites chosen. The team is so full of talented people, all of whom are respectful of one another’s opinions, and because of this the morning became a stimulating and creative task rather than a challenge. We decided to run a transect form west Zomba (Chingale), through a transition /frontier zone on the forested plateau and then continuing on towards Lake Chilwar. This method captures different distances from the large forested plateau, important providers of ecosystem services and the Lake Chilwa area which is so affected by actions taken on the plateau, yet provides other key services form the lake.


This lake has dried up in the recent past, and is likely to dry out again if further land use change, including further deforestation, and climate change occur. As the population of Malawi has increased significantly in the past decade, the consequence of the lake drying out would be severe and affect many people. I hope that the knowledge from our project will help to improve the management of the Zomba plateau and surrounding valleys to stop this from happening or to better manage the recovery from such an environmental shock beyond a tipping point.

The day concluded with some of the team being interviewed for a Malawian Environmental Programme shown three times a week and at a 9pm prime time slot. It was a pleasant surprise, and yet another challenge, to have so much time to discuss our project on television and not offer our 25 minutes of interview for a 30 second sound-bite. Sosten, Nyovani, Carolina and myself worked hard to explain why our project was important and what we will do with our findings. I hope we managed to rise to this challenge and you can be the judge when we hopefully post the progrmmae on youtube and on our ASSETS website Seeing my colleagues in action in front of the TV crew reassured me for the second time today that the ASSETS team is really special and I am honored to be leading the team to address such a globally important and worthwhile issue.


Day 3 Tuesday 25th – working with the community

October 3, 2012
by Guy Poppy

After almost three days of talking in a conference centre, it was time for me to join the team engaged with Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRA). We headed into the valley East of Zomba, where the ASSETS team had been training field workers in PRA and for me to see the village first hand that I had seen on the maps and tables presented yesterday. This was my first visit to the areas where we would be working over the next four years and I was excited as we pulled up into the community. Several groups were already discussing ecosystem services and ranking how important the services were to the community. This was a powerful approach which captured so much information of qualitative richness, so often neglected as everyone strives to quantify and statistical probe data. As a natural scientist now working and leading multidisciplinary teams, it is great to see the power of qualitative approaches, especially when integrated with the more quantitative household surveys and food diets, which in turn will help inform the rest of the team and especially models involved in assets.

I had the privilege of undertaking a transect walk through the village from the dam under construction outside the village boundary right down to the centre of the village, the hub of so much activity with our team these past few days. Joseph from WorldFish acted as a translator for us as we walked with two villages who shared the knowledge of the key features and ecosystem services in the village, which related to their attempts to stay food secure. It was eye-opening to see the reliance of improvements in plant breeding in providing hybrid maize, which also led to increased reliance on fertilizers, supposedly provided from the Government. At the same time, this fertilizer frequently leached from the soils and affected the fish ponds and water supply. A two-edged sword as fertilizer could really increase yield and help towards food security, whilst at the same time create a circle which can result in poor soils, low yields and polluted waters. In contrast, trees were being used to generate insecticides (like neem) and applied by reed-brushes to the crops which needed attention, and provide the pest regulation not on offer through insecticides to this community.

I found the experience humbling and motivational. The lady with Joseph in the picture was from one of the poorer parts of the village, yet she had easy access to water and was clearly a good farmer. She was also very pleased in having her photo taken with Joseph and reminded me powerfully of the need to ensure the knowledge form our research project has impact beyond academic journals.

Monday 24th September – Day 2- It’s hard to not want to make a difference

October 3, 2012
by Guy Poppy

Today was always scheduled to think and plan in the morning and to expose those of us who arrived only yesterday to the crucial first phase of the project – participatory rural appraisal. This proved to be a stimulating, challenging and humbling day which captured much of what the whole ESPA programme is about. As I sit writing this blog, reflecting on the day I feel a sense of energy and passion amongst the whole team, something exciting for me to see as it gives me real confidence in the caliber of the team and my own desire to ensure we really do deliver a project which really can undertake “world-class research on ecosystem services (ES) for poverty alleviation at the forest-agricultural interface and deliver evidence from a range of sources and in various formats to inform policy and behavior”.

During the morning it became increasingly apparent that some important decisions needed to be made. Everyone was contributing in the numerous brain-storms required to enable us to seek clarity and understanding of the major questions and themes of our project which will help us achieve our goal: “to explicitly quantify the linkages between the natural ecosystem services that affect – and are affected by – food security and nutritional health for the rural poor at the forest-agricultural interface”. Importantly, the conversations and sharing of expertise approaches amongst the disciplines will allow this multidisciplinary project to set off on the right trajectory – something so important for successful multidisciplinary projects addressing complex and grand challenges such as ensuring food and ecological security.

The afternoon involved a group of our Malawian collaborators, who had worked with the ASSETS team members from other countries, led by Kate Schreckenberg, presenting their results from the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) they had conducted in a village the previous week. I was amazed by the detail of the qualitative information obtained and the impact this approach will have in shaping the whole project. It confirmed the importance of community/village led input into projects like ours, the valuable insight from those living in the ecosystems we study and the error in assuming we know the key drivers and issues. Personally, I found the experience an emotional journey and humbling as the storyline emerged towards the coping strategies used by those suffering from extreme poverty in trying to ensure food security. I finished the day feeling honored and privileged to lead the marvelous ASSETS team and thinking to myself, I really want our world class research to make a difference and thus a Theory of Change takes on new meaning.

Sunday 23 September – Day One – A high point of the trip

October 3, 2012
by Guy Poppy

There is no better way to get a feel for an area than to climb to a high point and look over the landscape. Members of the ASSETS team ascended the Zomba plateau this morning from Ku Chawe Inn towards the Malumbe peak at 2075 metres. Whilst hiking the long and steep terrain and along a dramatic ridge towards the peak with radio and mobile masts, it was hard not to reflect on the beauty of the landscape, but also the fragility of the ecosystem which was vital to so many people- the reason we were here in Malawi. Our guide, Robert, clearly found the hike much easier than the rest of us, although I thought I was a well-fed fit cyclist. The dominance of African distance runners living at altitude is a really interesting current topic which I saw in a recent documentary broadcast after the Olympics.

When we reached Malumbe peak, I welcomed the rest and enjoyed eating some of the wild harvested fruits (Himalayan raspberry) which we had seen many people selling alongside the road as we drove from Zomba village into the forest reserve that morning. It is very clear that the forested Zomba Mountains are vital in providing services to many people living on and around the plateau. We could see right across Zomba west towards the Shire River which leads away from Lake Malawi (Lake Nyasa) and makes its way towards the Zambezi River. The villagers in this area west of the Zomba Plateau will be very important to our study and I look forward to working with them over the next few years. The range of ecosystem services crucial to these communities food security and how that in turn affects the ecosystem services is something we will be able to map and value (in terms of monetary and non-monetary) during the project. Even more importantly, we will develop an understanding of the linkages, trade-offs and tipping points, which should allow a better understanding of how best to manage this important area for sustainable utilisation of the vital resources for local communities.

After an interesting journey by Land Rover back down from Malumbe peak, we headed back to Annie’s Lodge to start discussions on the challenging but exciting ASSETS project. I was excited about the research programme before coming to Malawi, but the more I saw of the people and their landscape, the more I knew that we had a unique opportunity to do something special both scientifically and practically for the people, their environment and the country. The ethics training which we all then received took on a new meaning and engagement, to an extent I have never seen at ethics discussions at Southampton!

To read further blogs from Guy, please see the Sustainability Science website or the ASSETS project website.