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Delicate balancing act in Cape Maclear projects

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By Lesson Masiyano:

Cape Maclear is a place of unsullied beauty encapsulated in rich traditional narratives.

Historically, it was the site of evangelical work for the Free Church of Scotland which arrived in the area in 1875. But it is the tourism aspect though of Cape Maclear that perennially endears travellers to the place — especially during the roasting summer heat.

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And the place is very unique.

The Namkumba peninsula, of which the famous Chembe village is part, is a populous compacted area nestled between the descending hills and the stunning Lake Malawi. With most lodges lying right in the heart in the village, visitors here are exposed to everyday traditional African life by the communities.

In the vicinity of the lodges, the peninsula boasts the Lake Malawi National Park – a World Heritage Site with unparalleled endemic fish species and other aquatic and game life.

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As one stands on the sandy beaches extending 4.2 kilometres, the eye is greeted by an archipelago of islands like Thumbi West, Domwe and Mumbo that dot the deep clear waters of Cape Maclear.

Thus, the juxtaposition of these landscape elements create scenes of outstanding natural beauty, almost unsurpassed by any lakeshore beach along Lake Malawi.

Investment threat

And as this beauty of nature inspires investments of colossal proportion, it is the traditional and cultural spectacle of the area that stands on a shaky ground.

There is a huge desire to diversify the national economy, and tourism features highly on the radar of Malawi’s diversification drive.

To actualise this dream, the Cape Maclear Investment Holdings Limited was created to spearhead the transformation of the area. With an estimated investment of $2.6 billion, a consortium of investors of international repute – Neo Energy of UK, Trivest Investment Group of Bahamas, China Harbour Engineering Company and the Reserve Bank of Malawi’s Export Development Fund – were roped in to turn the 30-kilometre radius of Namkumba into a robust tourism nerve in Southern Africa.

By far, this would be the biggest Foreign Direct Investment outlay in Malawi, according to experts.

Government sees the tourism sector is a high growth export service sector, capable of making a substantial contribution to the socio-economic development of Malawi.

“The strong multiplier effects of tourism further positively impacts the rest of the social and economic sectors of the economy,” says government in the Annual Economic Report 2021.

The Cape Maclear project would significantly improve the GDP share of tourism sector to the national economy.

“Once the project is implemented, it will change the face of Cape Maclear and the entire of Mangochi district,” Bright Malopa, promoter of the project told the media in 2017.

According to the concept paper, the project would boast tourism amenities of note like airport, five-star hotel, amphitheatre, casino and a golf course, among others.

It is an investment blueprint that has enticed even the highest political echelons of the land. In 2017, former president Peter Mutharika struck a Memorandum of Understanding with Benedict Oramah, president of the Afreximbank for investment in the project.

Even the incumbent shares a similar vision towards development of the area. On May 31, 2020, President Lazarus Chakwera dangled the Cape Maclear investment carrot as he pursued votes. Addressing a rally in Monkey Bay he said, “Once voted into power, my government will promote tourism in Mangochi, especially at Cape Maclear.”

Reconciling contradictions

This, however, could put at risk the long-standing history and water-borne culture of Chembe village and its surrounding enclaves that extends to as far as Malembo.

Chembe village is a long-established community originally occupied by local people. The other enclave villagers are occupied largely by migrants from the north of the lake, who moved south to take advantage of the more productive fishing grounds in the lake.

The traditional livelihood of Chembe village, based largely on fishing, is being impacted on by immigration of people from outside the area looking to benefit from the influx of tourists.

Ordinarily, one would think that the local people would be the first to welcome the Cape Maclear Resort Project to increase their tourism income fortunes as the fish catches dwindle. This is where the paradox emerges.

“It is access to their land and the lake beach that would spell doom to the people once the project starts. They want that tourism spark around the area but they don’t want to cede their land,” says Wiseman Chijere Chirwa, a Professor of Economic History.

Obviously, government has the legal tools as well as economic muscle to relocate the people elsewhere. The land from Malembo to the drowning hills in Monkey Bay can be bought and compensation made to the affected people.

But imperatively, a candid consideration of the socio-economic welfare of the people ought to be given enough thought. This, of course, will not be an easy stroll, as foreseen by Chirwa.

“To reorient the relocated community into novel economic modes of production, other than fishing and tourism related activities, will be challenging.

“These people have grown up here as fishermen and selling tourism products and services. How would they embrace new economic means for survival?” Chirwa wondered.

Relocating people from the land they were born has at times proven to not be a sound socio-economic policy direction. Memories are still fresh how Kudzigulira Malo, a World Bank funded project, failed to incorporate the social, economic and cultural aspects when relocating people from one ecological zone to the other.

The balance sheet analysis of the project suggests that people who moved from Mulanje, Phalombe and Thyolo faced a horde of socio-economic ills when they relocated to Mangochi and Machinga around 2009 and 2010. All this boils down to the fact that the people were exposed to alien environmental ecologies.

It is the fear of being pushed into the economic peripherals of tourism production points that the locals at Chembe would resist with their last drop of blood. And Joseph Kamanje of Kayak Africa thinks that adequate consultations are needed to find a middle ground for the impending impasse.

“People of Chembe will always welcome any investments to boost tourism in the area. However, as custodians of the area, they want to be the primary beneficiaries of those economic fortunes,” he says.

Between a rock and a hard place?

As the communities rethink how they can cope with life in the event that the peninsula habitations are demolished, the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) is keeping tabs and praying that the development in the cape do not compromise the conservation efforts at its heritage site, Lake Malawi National Park.

Although the construction of a five-star hotel, golf course and other activities around the World Heritage Site was halted around 1990 at Golden Sands, the chance of such schemes being revived are now real.

“Upgrading of the road to Cape Maclear removes vegetation from widened road reserve, improves access to Cape Maclear leading to more traffic, and facilitates illegal activities within the park’s terrestrial component,” reads part of the 2020 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report.

The communities themselves are equally a threat. The rapidly increasing human population around Lake Malawi National Park had led to rise in cases of encroachment, deforestation, water pollution and illegal fishing.

Yet, also, the continual presence of human habitation around the peninsula is a buffer to Lake Malawi National Park against large conglomerate tourism investments. Thus, though menacing at times, the surrounding commuinities are an asset.

In the interim, as government looks for more investors to facelift Cape Maclear, Chembe village and the entire Namkumba peninsula are having a respite. The daily routine of men carrying their fishing gears and others putting the engine boats to life ready for fishing expeditions will characterise their daily itinerary.

For how long this respite will be there, time will tell. But when investors wake up from their slumber and inject pace into the project, Namkumba peninsula will panic again.

It could be that the gratifying integrated feeling that tourists enjoy whenever they visit Chembe will long be gone, possibly cast in the dustbin of history.

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