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!