The elephants of Phirilongwe Forest

About the author
Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88.

The American-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is a well-respected international organisation that seeks to preserve and enhance the security of wild animals. Among its backers have been celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan and Leonardo Di Caprio.

The translation of a letter (written in Chichewa) sent on 24 November 2006 from TA Mponda, TA Chimwala & TA Nankumba (Mangochi) to His Excellency The State President Dr Bingu Wa Mutharika

Subject: Request for a fence for the elephants of Phirilongwe Forest Reserve, Mangochi

We, the three chiefs from Mangochi, of the areas Mponda, Chimwala and Nankumba, have written this letter to you, to request your assistance with the following issue in our area.
We write to inform you, Sir, that we don't want the elephants of Mangochi area to be removed.
We know that God gave us the elephants and made the lake to be here, so we want to ask you, Sir, if you can please put a fence for the elephants, as they are destroying the crops and also harming the people in our area.
So we are asking you please, Sir, if you can put a fence on the side where the elephants are.
We believe and hope that you will hear our request, so that you can help us with this issue, and we are asking if we can come to have a meeting with you about this.

Thank You
We are your children,

TA Chimwala
TA Mponda
TA Nankumba

The organisation is currently overseeing the transportation of all the elephants from their home in the Phirilongwe forest near Mangochi by Lake Malawi, 250 kilometres away to the Majete game-park close to Malawi's border with Mozambique. Most of the elephants have already been transported, leaving only remnants of the herd which by the time this article appears may have all gone.

I have no doubt that the IFAW believes that it is acting in the best interests of the Phirilongwe elephants by removing them from their established habitat to the game-park. Indeed, in doing so, it insists that this is the only way to "save" the elephants and that Majete remains the "most secure haven" for the Phirilongwe elephants.

The IFAW insists that most residents in the area support the removal of the elephants.

Yet it is using its resources to ignore long-established hopes locally of establishing a wildlife sanctuary in Mangochi that would save not only the elephants from danger but also local people, among the poorest people in a very poor country, from destitution.

On both counts, its position is (to say the least) questionable. First, the elephants could be protected equally well in the Mangochi area, and may indeed be safer there - the Majete game-park, like Malawi's other game-parks close to its borders, is vulnerable to poachers who come from outside the country. It also appears that Majete is experiencing significant human-elephant conflicts of its own, as elephants escape.

Second, all efforts - national and international as well as local - to hold a full and open consultation on the fate of the elephants and to resolve the issues thrown up by the proposal for a wildlife sanctuary have been stonewalled for several years. Ever since 2005 local people, including chiefs, have been seeking to establish the sanctuary in the area that would protect the elephants and contribute to a more sustainable local economy through eco-tourism. As things are, environmental pressures and extreme poverty are causing avoidable deaths among local people and destroying their well-being and habitat. If some now support the move, it is only because they have been browbeaten and have given up hope on receiving support for a sanctuary. If anyone wishes to suggest that there has been no coercion applied, there is now ample evidence to the contrary.

The block 

The efforts to protect both elephants and people through local solutions brought about potential funding from the World Bank for a feasibility study. There was also strong European Union interest in the project. The International Fund for Animal Welfare surely must know this, unless it has been kept in the dark ; in any event it failed to take proper soundings. 

The fund must also be aware that Malawi's department of national parks and wildlife intervened to block the plan in what may fairly be described as dubious, and certainly as undemocratic, circumstances. So why has it gone ahead with what seems to me - as a onetime consultant to the Malawi government and to the speaker of the Malawi parliament - a misguided, costly exercise to take enormously valuable assets from the community and hand them over to private interests with no prospect of compensation for the community? 

Even more pronounced than the loss of the value of the elephants is the incalculable harm done to the development prospects of the local community. Surely an influential body such as the IFAW should take the trouble to make sure that it is acting in accordance with proper democratic process, if only to protect itself against charges of neo-imperialism or worse? 

These are strong words. Let me recap as best I can from the point of view of an outsider. 

The proposal 

The Phirilongwe elephants and forest reserve have long been regarded as a valuable national asset that could be used for poverty-reduction strategies premised on the development of the eco-tourism that was contributing to the economies of neighbouring countries. 

The proposal for a sanctuary proved to be no pipedream. Early in 2005, the Malawi government took an active interest in the plan for a wildlife sanctuary. In July 2005, the European Union and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) locally sponsored an early study of the cross-cutting issues involved; the Malawi government, conscious of the wider social, infrastructure, health and development opportunities that the study opened up, set up a cross-ministry task force also to examine the issues that the plan raised. 

The government's interest led to a series of consultations up to 2007 with interested parties, including representatives from the WWF, another body that is concerned to save endangered species. Many local chiefs and people were at the time quite clearly committed to the idea of a sanctuary that could bring great benefits to their lives. 

Three chiefs even wrote a letter in Chichewa on 24 November 2006 to the president of Malawi, requesting his assistance. In translation, it reads in part: "We write to inform you, Sir, that we do not want the elephants of Mangochi area to be removed. We know that God gave us the elephants and made the lake to be here, so we want to ask you, Sir, if you can please put a fence for the elephants, as they are destroying the crops and also harming the people in our area." This letter was not answered and, according to one internal source, the ministry responsible for parks never passed on the letter to the president. Instead it harangued the chiefs. 

It would be wrong to try and skate over the genuine difficulties that had to be resolved. The situation of elephants living alongside local inhabitants brought about long-unresolved tensions, the deaths of elephants and people alike, and the destruction from time to time of precious crops. But malaria and poverty-related fatalities far outweighed the deaths caused by conflicts between elephants and humans in the area. The plan was greatly to reduce human-elephant contact with a sanctuary, and generate a revenue-stream that would benefit the community and reduce deaths from poverty and disease. 

The talks also took into account the concerns of the local communities about shrinking resources and environmental pressures that were depriving villagers of a healthy habitat and life-chances. The prospect of a sanctuary could protect both the lives of the elephants and the lives and livelihoods of the people. The sanctuary could encourage eco-tourism to regenerate the area and make it economically viable, with resorts along the lakeside. 

Another consideration is that as soon as the elephants are gone, more trees will also disappear, for the elephants have been the guardians of the forest. Research shows that trees are a major driver of weather and strongly influences rainfall patterns. The peninsula where the forest is located is already showing signs of significant deforestation and environmental degradation, even though it is considered to be one of the most significant sites in the world in terms of biodiversity. It is for this reason that nearby Lake Malawi National Park was in 1984 declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. 

The appeal 

The interest in the plan shown both by the Malawi government and local people encouraged the World Bank to take an interest too, especially in view of the potential links with its own infrastructure investments in the Mangochi area. A high-level meeting took place in Washington in 2006 between Malawi government officials and the World Bank and substantial funds were provisionally earmarked to carry out feasibility studies. All that remained was for the Malawi government to make a formal request. 

At this point Malawi's department of national parks and wildlife sabotaged the deal, by vigorously opposing the plan for a sanctuary. No coherent explanation for the department's strenuous opposition has been forthcoming. Not surprisingly, unseemly rumours have filled the void of hard information as the whole affair has become increasingly polarised and menacing. There were also tales of growing elephant-human conflicts and even of wounded beasts. The WWF representatives were harassed until they withdrew from the project. 

In 2007 and early 2008, efforts were made to find a way forward and reconcile differences within the Malawi government. These stalled, and the vision of the elephant sanctuary as a means of lifting the local area out of poverty began to look less and less likely - especially when the transportation of the elephants began in earnest. In a last-ditch effort, local campaigners applied for an injunction under Malawi's Environmental Protection Act, which is designed to prevent any act or omission that might harm the environment or deplete natural resources. 

One or two of those involved have informed me that the government lawyers' case was "patently shallow", with no base in scientific or other evidence; and that there were attempts to have people opposed to the removal of the elephants removed from a hearing, or prevented from passing notes to their own lawyer. The judge would have none of that, but nevertheless the court ultimately saw fit to vacate the injunction and removals were resumed at an even greater speed. 

I cannot corroborate what they have told me, but more disinterested parties have informed me that those who were campaigning against the transportation and seeking the injunction were intimidated with threats of violence and death. "There may still be grim consequences", one protester told me, "because everyone who is remotely associated with the resistance is being intimidated in the most blatant and brutal manner. I'm waiting for them to come through my door." 

The protest

The resistance continues, even at this late stage when most of the elephants have already been taken. The protesters are on strong ground when they complain that the operation has not been set in motion after a properly transparent and inclusive process and has been carried forward through stealth and in haste. They also complain about the "confrontational behaviour" that has accompanied the whole saga and raise concerns about the standards of tendering for contracts and due disclosure. 

They are demanding a full Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA), conducted by an independent firm chosen in a transparent process. Malawi's Environmental Management Act requires exactly such a measure. They hope that the assessment could set the stage for an objective, informed and balanced national debate on environmental issues that could lay the ground for a substantial strategy to preserve Malawi's natural resources for future generations. 

I am reliably informed that the IFAW was kept in the dark about the preliminary EU study on options to protect both people and elephants, and possibly other aspects of the contemporary attempts to establish the sanctuary. Yet it seems to me that they are still under an obligation, as is the Malawi government, to ensure that the removal of the elephants that is now taking place and the use of funds on transportation rather than fencing a local sanctuary should be done on the basis of independent scientific research. This should take into account the best interests of the community and broader government policies relating to economic development, health and nutrition. It should also be done through an open, inclusive and accountable manner rather than by stealth. (It is reported that the local communities were completely taken by surprise by the appearance of a helicopter and elephant-transport vehicles.) 

The way ahead 

The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance upholds as one of its basic principles the "effective participation of citizens in democratic and development processes and in governance of public affairs". It goes on to stress the importance of safeguarding the rights of (among others) "marginalised and vulnerable social groups". 

Moreover, the UN International Covent an Economic, Social and Cultural Rights sets out a basic human right to participation, especially for poor people. In work for Democratic Audit and the democracy-assessment programme of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA),I have been involved in developing generally accepted norms for participation and consultation. 

On this basis, it is evident to me, as it is to many impartial observers of what is happening in Malawi, that: 

* There should be an independent inquiry into the relative advantages of all relevant options, and most certainly that of a sanctuary in the Phirilongwe forest, that considers the impact of any decision on the environment, the interests of the local communities, and the long-term safety of the elephants 

* The local communities should be fully and openly consulted, presented with the facts and options available, and asked for their views on what should be done. 

In view of the damaging rumours that are current, the local communities also ought to be reassured that the award of contracts followed proper tendering procedures, supervised by the authorities. 

These demands for community participation and transparency echo what local people and others are urging on the government. I believe that it is up to the president of Malawi and his government and the International Fund for Animal Welfare to satisfy themselves that they were not presented with a very incomplete picture on purpose. If this process raises serious enough questions, an independent inquiry should be a possible option. 

There is a sting in the tale for the IFAW. It is reported that the African Parks Foundation (APF), which runs the Majete game-park along with others in Africa, is willing to consider all options that will secure the future of their parks, "including big-game hunting for which wealthy Americans will pay trophy fees in the tens of thousands of pounds" (see "Animal charity saves 60 elephants amid controversy", Daily Telegraph, 19 June 2009). In a recent document, it said that it would "evaluate the feasibility of limited trophy- hunting as a means of ensuring financial sustainability" in Majete. The IFAW told the Telegraph that it was "unaware" of the APF's stance on hunting - to which it is opposed. 

Can IFAW provide unqualified assurances that as sponsors of the translocation they will insist that there will be no hunting in Majete; and more importantly, that they have satisfied themselves that everything possible has been done to consider the future welfare of the people of Mangochi as well as of their elephants?

It is difficult to see what has made Malawi's department of parks and wildlife so intransigent and why it has been permitted to exercise a veto over crucial development and environmental matters so far beyond its mandate. Whatever the reason for its vigorous campaign against protecting the elephants and people in their present location, the truth is likely to emerge through the courts and through the courageous insistence of civil-society organisations on answers to uncomfortable questions. 

Perhaps IFAW should show a little more interest in getting to the bottom of the matter. Instead of adopting a knee-jerk defensive position, it should make an  effort to face reality and avoid any being deceived. Too much is at stake for any more evasion and delay to be tolerable.