Raising the Dust Chapter Reflections

Chapter Ten: The State of the Biosphere ‒ Part IV

In previous Raising the Dust chapter reflections, I have explored some of the tensions that arose for me as an ‘inside-outsider’ conducting ethnographic research on a mountainside in the South of Malawi.  I was a lone white woman who’d come to speak with traditional healers about their knowledge, practices and beliefs and inevitably, I got to see, hear and sense a lot more of everyday life in my fieldwork area than what I’d taken in during the 48 interviews I conducted in two specific areas of the mountain. This was inevitable since my methodology had been put together using both semi-structured interviewing and participant observation. In fact, it was my job to bring these two things together in my findings. Some of what I observed was inspiring but there were times when I struggled to keep myself together in this UNESCO[i] declared “Biosphere Reserve”, with its different zones yet it’s obviously interconnected reality.


Zoning of the biosphere reserve

Mulanje Mountain was first zoned into separate areas by the Department of Forestry, and more recently according to UNESCO’s MAB (Man and the Biosphere) guidelines. It was important for me to understand the different boundary zones and how they impact the management of local resources. The Department of Forestry has divided the mountain into five management areas (Environment & Development Group, 2000[ii]); zone one is restricted to biodiversity conservation, focusing in particular on the protection of the endemic Mulanje Cedar; zone two allows for the sustainable use of resources, with a focus on community co-management practices; zone three is the “reforestation” zone, which includes the Chambe plateau where mining explorations were occurring at the time of my fieldwork; zone four, the administrative zone, includes places like the local forestry office; zone five is the ‘extension zone’ demarcated by a 2 kilometres and a 5 kilometre zone. incorporating the densely populated settlements surrounding the mountain. This area is included in the Department’s overall management plan.


Biosphere Reserves are usually separated into three separate areas; core zones, buffer zones and transition zones but Mulanje Mountain’s MAB zoning is unique in that it consists mostly of a core zone − coloured in pink on map 10.1, with a significant buffer zone on the eastern side of the mountain – indicated in yellow. This includes the regeneration zone in the Chambe plateau, marked out as the ‘Chambe Basin’ on map 10.1 The third zone is the 2 kilometres transition zone − coloured in beige on map 10.1. Stakeholders were applying to have the MAB reserve’s transition zoning re-designated to include the densely populated 5 kilometre forest extension zone in this transition region. While the current MAB zoning excludes these highly populated village communities within this 5km extension area, in reality, they exert a significant impact on the mountain’s ecological status and should therefore be included in it.

RDT map

Map 10.1: Map showing the zoning of the Mulanje Mountain Biosphere reserve[iii]

The above map illustrates the levels of confusion and layers of contradiction that define the management of natural resource in protected areas like this and it’s not surprising that stakeholders, and therefore the Mountain, are in a precarious position (Hecht, 2006[iv]). Shortly before leaving the field, I met up with a key contact from the organisation I conducted my research with, the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT) for a ‘research round up’ discussion. One of the topics that came up was whether the local people knew that Mulanje Mountain was a MAB designated Biosphere Reserve and what this might mean to them. We agreed that it was highly unlikely that people knew, or had much interest. He had this view because he had extensive knowledge and experience of living and working in the area, and I felt this way because no one had mentioned it to me during the three months of fieldwork. There was, however, widespread awareness of the work the MMCT was doing to protect the area and many people had been involved in the MMCT’s conservation activities in some way.

UNESCOs Biosphere Reserves were initially set aside as protected areas that combined conservation objectives and human activities but there have been significant conceptual shifts in the management of these areas and now the emphasis is on their role in supporting strategies for conservation alongside the sustainable use of biodiversity (Burhenne-Guilmin, 2008[v]). Management roles in these protected areas have, however, become somewhat complicated by the artificial demarcations and roles they operate within. It was only long after I’d left the field that a correspondent was able to clarify some of this confusion for me:

Yes, the Yellow is Buffer zone, and that means ‘some’ areas fall within the Buffer zone. But much of the core zone is outside the buffer, i.e. the pink areas. The regeneration areas fall within the core zone, correct. However, note that our situation of Biosphere reserve management does not strictly follow the MAB designations of the functions of these areas. You will find that where you are only allowed research and very minimal activity according to MAB, we have the tourist facilities and so many people criss-cross, and do harvesting of resources as well. We fight to encourage regeneration in the transition areas for example. So it’s quite a mixture of management scenarios if you may call it. (Correspondence received 9 April, 2013)

Although ethnographic research can be viewed as a case-study, mine was not because it did not focus on any single entity but rather looked at how the local area functioned as a whole, and it had a strong cultural focus. My study sought to explore both the everyday and the sacred aspects of the MAB protected area containing, “a complex inter-relationship between the cultural continuity and integrity of a people’s knowledge and practice, and the material biological diversity made manifest in the landscape” (Hay-Edie and Hadley 1998:48[vi]).

As Brosius (2001[vii]) explains, the sacred is not an abstraction in these areas; its meaning is often biographical and personal, so it’s difficult for outsiders like myself to understand certain things ‒ like the ways in which the spirits of the living and the dead become written into the landscape. Brady reminds us that meaning thus “cannot be done without a code or guide, living or otherwise, to the semiotic investments of those who have passed that way before” (2008:503[viii]). It was important, therefore, for me not to misinterpret the spiritual and material interconnectedness of the area I was pointing my researchers lens at. As much as I could, I had to understand, both the MAB status of the Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve and the natural sacredness of the region to the local people and to explore these interconnections with care.

At the time of fieldwork, Springstone Mining ‒ a Canadian mining company ‒ was conducting mining explorations in the region.[ix] The area holds some of the world’s richest supplies of rare earth minerals (Wall and Mariano, 1996[x]) and according to the local manager of Springstone Mining – a Japanese national stationed in Mulanje − the company was exploring the feasibility of mining the mountain for fine-grain rare earth minerals in the Chambe plateau. Further inquiries revealed that the project had already progressed beyond its initial feasibility phase and was in fact in its second stage of development. The mining manager explained the high demand for rare earth minerals in terms of the growing international market for electronics, including green motor vehicle components.[xi] She said China held a monopoly of the global stock of these minerals, stressing how important it was that Japan secure access to a reliable source in order to compete for the growing market in electronics and other technological goods.

The area where the mining operations were taking place was within the core zone of the Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve but had been designated a ‘regeneration zone’ which allows human activity. It had been classified as such because the Mexican pine had succeeded in colonizing the area. These Mexican pine plantations were first established by the Department of Forestry between 1953 and 1965. At the time of fieldwork significant progress had been made in clearing the area of these invasive pines. In order to gain a better understanding of the ways in which the Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve had been set up and how this would affect future mining activities in the area, I referred to maps, asked questions and examined reports. My questions were either deflected, or avoided completely, until a stakeholder explained that people did not want to discuss the issue anymore. He said they’d resisted the threat of bauxite mining but had become depleted of their resources in the process. Another stated he’d been informed by WIPO[xii] − World Intellectual Property Organisation – of how impossible it is to stop the mining of rare earth minerals due to the high demands for it globally.

At the time of fieldwork, I was told that the MMCT had already put forward a proposal to have Mulanje Mountain declared a World Heritage Site. The focus of that application was on the value of the Mountain’s biodiversity. Due to being ecologically compromised, it was rejected with a recommendation that the MMCT submit an alternative proposal on the grounds of cultural diversity. I tried to explain that these two things cannot be separated. One is integral to the other. It was obvious to me but seemed to fall on deaf ears at the time. By August 2012, a draft of the new MMCT proposal had been put together, this time with a plan to exclude the re-generation area, so that the rare earth mining could still go ahead. The regeneration zone is inside the core zone though so it’s difficult to exclude it. The rare earth mining explorations were causing tensions that were unresolved by the time fieldwork ended. None of my interview participants had made reference to any of these activities but the situation became personal for me. Towards the end of fieldwork, an exchange of words occurred in the guesthouse between myself and a Japanese national who’d previously been stationed in Malawi as a volunteer. At the time of her being in our guesthouse, she was employed by Springstone Mining to conduct an ‘environmental assessment’ of the area. One of the guesthouse guards started taking notice of our heated discussion. He listened as we discussed our differences and later, while he and I were talking, he raised his shoulders, saying “jobee?” (Fieldwork Diary, 07 July 2012). He said maybe the mining activities would bring much needed employment to the area. Other people I spoke with insisted these mining activities would threaten the Mountain but bring little benefit to the local community. They said they’d been promised schools and hospitals in the past, but that nothing had come of these assurances. “Mining has been one of the most destructive of all industries, both socially and environmentally” (Ruiz, 2004:187[xiii]), and despite the possibilities it brings to developing regions, I felt that, in this case, it was yet another example of one powerful entity working with another powerful entity to appropriate the resources of the poor.

The ‘heated discussion’ described above is more accurately described as an altercation. There I was, an inside-outsider, getting ready to leave the field and begin putting together my academic findings but I could not let a change of room in our guest house go unchallenged. The environmental assessor wanted a bigger room and began moving her stuff into another available room. As she did this, my disapproving looks became heated words of disagreement about her being there at all; how she could be there under such false and threatening pretenses, and then it escalated to me getting up onto the guesthouse bed in anger and ripping down the mosquito net the previous occupant had left me when she’d returned home. Childish, yes, outside of the bounds of expected researcher behavior, possibly. By this time, I’d become so attached to the Mountain and everything it held, I was overcome with anger that a foreigner, like myself could go to a place they had very little understanding about under these conditions.

We are researchers who try to look at things objectively and with a clear perspective but being an everyday part of the area for months, becoming attached, being human, feeling deeply for the Earth as I do, I could not prevent myself from acting out in this way. I have no regrets about my behaviour and believe that having our own feelings, and being truthful about them, is as much a part of good research as looking at a single cell through a microscope is. I believe that being able to put together the varied aspects of everyday life in my area of research in this way ‒ including my own experiences ‒ is what enriched my study. Next month I will explore some of these naturalistic research aspects further. In the meantime, if you’d like further information about any aspect of my research, please email me at hippygolucky@hotmail.com


Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605 .


[i] UNESCO. Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve. Retrieved from http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1419/

[ii] Environment & Development Group. (2000). Mulanje Mountain and Michesi Forest Reserves, Malawi. Five Year Management Plan: 2001-2005. Oxford: Environment & Development Group.

[iii] This map was retrieved from https://www.google.com.au/search?q=mulanje+mountain+biosphere+reserve&biw=1680&bih=955&tbm=isch&imgil=SXofXPGfGZG_KM%253A%253Bhttps%253A%252F%252Fencrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com%252Fimages%253Fq%253Dtbn%253AANd9GcQrvuZ0GKlAmd0gLaW59tNsVMROHacaqbj9oCHLoqOxEs1PIlMw%253B1057%253B735%253BhGK0vZf2HLq6kM%253Bhttp%25253A%25252F%25252Fwww.springstonemining.com%25252Fs%25252FEnvironmental.asp&source=iu&usg=__1bpUbSnzEmxKOn0Pg7vNB9yTZp8%3D&sa=X&ei=Nv5EU9LSLsThlAWAzIG4Bg&ved=0CEsQ9QEwBQ#imgdii= _

[iv] Hecht, J. (2006). Valuing the Resources of Mulanje Mountain. Community Partnerships for Sustainable Resource Management Compass ll, Occassional Paper no 14. Blantyre: Development Alternatives Inc.

[v] Burhenne-Guilmin, F. (2008). Biodiversity and International Law: Historical Perspectives and Present Challenges: Where Do We Come From, Where Are We Going. In M. Jeffery., J. Firestone., & K. Bubna-Litic, (Eds.), Biodiversity, Conservation, Law and Livelihoods: Bridging the North-South Divide (pp 26-42). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[vi] Hay-Edie, T., & Hadley, M. (1998). Natural Sacred Sites- A Comparative Approach to their Cultural and Biological Significance. In P. S. Ramakrishnan., K. G. Saxena., & U. M. Chandrashekara, (Eds.), Conserving the Sacred For Biodiversity Management (pp 46-67). USA: Science Publishers Inc.

[vii] Brosius, J. P. (2001). Local knowledges, Global Claims: On the Significance of Indigenous Ecologies in Sarawak, East Malaysia. In J. Grim, (Ed.), Indigenous Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community (pp 125-152). USA: Harvard University Press.

[viii] Brady, I. (2008). Poetics for a Planet: Discourse on Some Problems of Being-in-Place. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln, (Eds.), Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials (pp 502-538). California: SAGE.

[ix] The manager overseeing the local operations provided information on the company’s intentions in the area. A background on the company’s mining explorations can be accessed at


[x] Wall, F., & Mariano, A. (1996). Rare earth minerals in carbonatites: a discussion centred on the Kangankunde Carbonatite, Malawi. In A. Jones., F. Wall., & T. Williams, (Eds.), Rare Earth Minerals: Chemistry, Origin and Ore deposits (pp 193-222). London: The Mineralogical Society.

[xi] The mining manager said that rare earth minerals are used in the manufacture of technical components for electronic goods and ‘green’ cars, commodities that are in increasing demand on the global market.

[xii]  A stakeholder said that he had been informed that WIPO that rare earth mining is the only mining that can not be stooped because of the high demand for it on the international market. WIPO’s activiites can be accessed at http://www.wipo.int/portal/en/index.html

[xiii] Ruiz, D. (2004). Globalizing Indigenous Resistance. In K. Ausubel., & J. P. Harpignes, (Eds.), Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves (pp 186-192). San Francisco: Sierra Book Clubs.