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Engage the Mulanje residents

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Mulanje residents are angry. The government is hopeless as residents in the rest of the country cannot understand how a whole government can be held to ransom by a group of citizens numbering to a few thousands.

But that is the tragedy that is faced when people have an impression that one is a pathological liar. Even a mere greeting would be viewed with suspicion. People would analyse the way the lips have been twisted as the greeting is coming out. The way the eye brows are raised and the number of lines formed on a forehead and whether it was a smile or a grin also matter.

That is exactly the lesson the Democratic progressive Party (DPP) government learnt on Monday when Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Minister, George Chaponda, was chased from his home district of Mulanje.

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Context

Government wants to implement a project to tap water from Mulanje Mountain to supply the commercial capital, Blantyre. This is not a novel idea because the past administrations have been conducting feasibility studies and trying to source funds for the project. At one time, the water was supposed to come from Chiradzulu Mountain. But with severe deforestation, the water level in the mountain has subsided, rendering the project unsustainable.

Then the focus shifted from Chiradzulu Mountain to the island in the sky –Mulanje Mountain. The DPP administration can take credit for its attempts to implement the project.

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But the Mulanje residents feel short-changed as they claim that the DPP administration has not fulfilled its promises.

The Issues

The residents under the Citizens for the Protection of Mulanje Mountain (CPM) claim that they are not against the project. However, they want government to fulfils its pledges on three fronts as follows: Plant 3,500 trees on Mulanje Mountain, ensure that the project also supplies the Mulanje residents who are struggling to access potable water under the Southern region Water Board and finally, government must ensure that the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT) should cease its operations.

For me the first two demands seem legitimate. Reforesting the mountain will ensure that the water table on the mountain is sustained. One cannot also expect the project pipes to criss-cross the district as the residents die of thirst. That can put the project at the mercy of saboteurs as there will be no ownership.

I will not comment on the issue of MMCT because the allegations by the villagers are often borne from emotions rather than fact. If they have the facts, then projecting the same becomes a challenge for CPM.

The challenge here is that government thinks it can threaten the residents and get away with it. Even for Chaponda, who President Peter Mutharika calls the DPP Bulldozer, allowed megalomania to cloud the issues. No wonder he blamed the police for “underrating the villagers”.

The DPP government must learn to consult and build consensus with major stakeholders. There is no way any project can succeed if the local communities do not buy in.

Government failure

But it is amazing that the government is failing to manage the disgruntled CPM. The government has a wide choice of opportunities through which it can address concerns of the residents. It can factor in the issue of reforesting the mountain under the environment impact of the project and ask its partners to fund that. It can also ask the Forestry Department to handle that since it is its mandate. The government can even collaborate with the residents to redress the mountain.

But why is it that the government cannot find a lasting solution to the concerns of the CPM? It would be interesting to find out how special the CPM is that it can hold the whole country at ransom. Maybe communities in the other regions should learn from CPM on how they can successfully block government programmes and let them happen at the community’s convenience.

The residents must sober up

Talking about the government’s failure, there is need for the residents to ease a gear a bit. We know that Mulanje residents are liberal and they stand up for their rights. History is replete with how Mulanje residents participated in the struggle for the liberation of Malawi. Even the Chilembwe Uprising depended to a great extent on the people of Mulanje.

Mulanje was also a hot bed for multi-party. These residents never base their political considerations on nepotism. How many Malawians remember that Mulanje was the de-facto headquarters of the Alliance for Democracy (Aford). It is the only district in the south that gifted Aford an MP in the name of Reverend Peter Kaleso.

No wonder, the residents stoned their sons: Chaponda and MP Angie Kaliati, because to them, issues matter.

That said, the residents must accept to move with time. They should admit that they do not own Mulanje Mountain. The Mountain does not only belong to Malawi but to the whole humanity by virtue of being a world heritage site.

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