biosphere lensRaising the Dust Chapter Reflections

Chapter Ten: The State of the Biosphere ‒ Part I

In my introductory “Raising the Dust” article I explained that I chose to conduct my study in a biosphere reserve. Initially this was because it involved traditional ecological knowledge and one of the ‘pillars’ of this ecological outlook is how knowledge/wisdom is exchanged or transferred. Since my study is ethnographic, it was important to look at the local context and then view it more broadly. Traditional medicine was my ‘lens’ though which to view the relationship between human and ecological health, in a broader sense. With this in mind, the data I collected and collated for this chapter helps to contextualise my findings. In this article I further explore some of the fears, dangers and opportunities that this changing context brings.


Foreign Concepts

One of the things I had to think about during the whole research process ‒ particularly as I got deeper into my experiences in the field ‒ was language. How we express ourselves influences how others perceive us. Being a new researcher, I tried to dot my I’s and cross my T’s with everything I did. This was the case with my use of language as much as anything else about my study so I selected words that I thought would be just right. For example, before leaving for fieldwork, I discarded the term ‘conservation’ as I thought it came with too many unwanted colonial connotations. Picking from radical ecological terms I thought would be more congruent with my study, I started using words such as, ‘restore, regenerate and balance’. In addition to reverting to using the ecological terms that framed my early approaches like, resilience, complexity, diversity and holism, I also employed sustainability language to describe some of the main ideas in the literature. My intentions were good but once I arrived in the field, I realised that I’d need to go back to talking about conservation. When I did, people knew exactly what I was talking about because in my study area, the idea of ‘conservation’ means to hold nature dear; to care for and show the natural world respect. I found that when I used this term, local people responded well to it and they became engaged with my research.

I became aware too of how local people ‒ including my research participants ‒ had become very familiar with the use of what one might describe as, ‘stakeholder language’, language that’s used as a tool to facilitate community capacity building. The use of this kind of language seemed to be a two-way street with not only my participants using it to describe their needs, but also, the organisation I conducted my research through, using it to reflect their aims and objectives. Pigg notes that this attempt on the part of development agencies ‒ to use more “attractive and persuasive” (1997:51)[i] language in their dealings with local communities ‒ is more rhetorical than an actual change from the more familiar top-down development approaches of the past. The intentions of development programs remain steadfastly directed towards mainstream models of ‘modernisation’. So whilst I developed some sensitivity about how I used language in the field, a lot of both the terminology and the ideology that defines sustainability discourse ‒ and post-modernisation theory more generally ‒ influenced the way in which I conceptualised the framework of my analysis, both its insightfulness and limitations. 


Foreign Seeds

Not only do we take in information orally, we absorb a lot of it through our eyes. This was true from the moment I landed in Malawi. I was tired and had no idea where I was but this did not stop my sight senses from soaking everything in like a sponge. Even on the bus trip from Lilongwe ‒ the capital ‒ towards my field, one of the first ‘signs’ that stood out to me was the stark rows of maize, standing uniform and tall, almost soldier-like. I noticed the large signs staked at the front of these rows. “Pan 53”, they read, yet I new that these straight rows of soldier-like corn were not saluting Pan, the God of Nature, but a different ‘deity’, that of big agri-business and its leanings towards, not just gene modification, but the control of the biodiversity of our natural world. A huge foreign intervention at the most basic level of Malawian society ‒ food. These Pan 53 seeds were being marketed by a South African company called Panneer, now owned by Pioneer Dupont, which at the time of my research, was the world’s second largest seed company (DuPont, 2013) [ii]. Later I noticed that hybrid seeds, as well as a range of other agricultural products were being marketed through hardware outlets named after other Nature deities like the local so-called “Demeter” agricultural store.

Vandana Shiva (1993a)[iii] had long been one of my ecological guides. Like her, I’ve always understood the critical importance of biodiversity in sustaining life, and looking at these agricultural interventions, in the context of traditional medicine and traditional ways of maintaining health and wellbeing, I wondered where all the local seed varieties had gone. Furthermore, since Malawian babies consume maize before they are weaned, and it’s a staple for the rest of their lives, “what are the health effect of consuming a life-time of this genetically modified high-yield, high-starch, low nutrient corn”, I asked myself? This high-yield maize is not only a food staple, it’s a political commodity and one day, as I was driving with an informant to the city of Blantyre, we passed a number of huge metal silos. My companion explained that the former president had pretended to fill these huge metal structures with grain but it had come to the people’s attention that they had been empty all along. Malawi had just chosen a new president as I arrived in Malawi but driving through the area, we suspected that they were still empty. We stopped to photograph these silos but the guard on duty asked us politely to ‘please go away’. He said we should ‘come back some other time’ when there might be someone available who could tell us about the huge metal shapes dominating the landscape.

Despite these political miss leadings, there is some great work being done, at both a Research and Development and grassroots level. For example, at the time of my research, the Bunda College of Agriculture in Lilongwe was leading a campaign to encourage people to eat local vegetable varieties. I noted that one of the key strategies used in promoting this campaign was because people in Europe are taking up local/traditional grains and other consumables with renewed enthusiasm. Once again, the foreign element prevailed, even as an incentive for people to change their behaviour locally, or more accurately, to go back to doing what they’d always done ‒ grown and consumed a range of nutritious local varieties. I wanted to give my interview participants packets of local seeds but I couldn’t find them anywhere. Nangoma and Nangoma stress the importance of these local/traditional seed varieties, not only for people’s immediate health, but for food security, as a matter of urgency. They state that the loss of local seed varieties should act as a “wake up call for all concerned” (2013:15)[iv]. Food production and consumption patterns were important to my study because of the obvious ‒ yet not always recognised ‒ link between food and medicine. For instance, my interview participants explained how they used locally grown ‘ajo’ (garlic) for a range of ailments. One participant told me she used lemon leaves for sexually transmitted disease and another described how she used the bark, leaves and fruit of the mango tree for a variety of illnesses. Even when dining informally with friends, I noted that food plays a significant role, not only in maintaining physical health and vitality but in sustaining the social and spiritual life of the community.

While agricultural diversity supports traditional medicine, conversely, the loss of agricultural diversity diminishes it. Some good things were happening at a grass-roots level to promote agricultural diversity. For example, I was waiting for a minibus one day when a construction truck picked me up and whilst sitting on the back of it, I met a young man who was working with local communities to educate them into producing and consuming traditional food varieties. I said that the people already know how to do this and he replied that his program was teaching the “new generation”, who’d “forgotten” (Fieldwork Diary, 04 July 2012). With the assistance of the program’s Norwegian donors, the young man had been doing this for some years and on the day we met he was on the way to the trading center to send off his latest report to the program’s funding body. Talking to this young man, I discovered that the program distributes local amaranth seeds (a traditional ‘grain’) and promotes the cultivation and consumption of useful exotics like moringa, which is easy to propagate. Moringa is an important food in Malawi and is valued in many parts of Africa as a supplement for treating people with sensitive immune systems including HIV/AIDS, the aged and vulnerable infants. The young man’s Norwegian funded program was also encouraging people to use solar powered ovens to dry herbs for later use and as an alternative source to burning local wood.



A striking ring of bright green surrounds Mulanje Mountain. It’s the perfect place to grow tea. The tea brings in foreign exchange but all I could see as I looked at the lush tea fields was what had been lost. Foremost in my mind was all the medicines that the forests had previously held.

                                                  Tea field

                                                  Image 1. Tea field from the main road

Being a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve, any local agricultural activity that ‘encroaches’ up the side of the Mountain is seen as a threat yet these plantations have been allowed to intrude on all sides, reducing the indigenous landscape to remnant patches. I noted:

The tea estates have crept up the mountain, the ‘ideal’ climate for tea production. Also the ideal climate for miombo grass, woodland trees, forest fruits, medicine, butterflies, chameleons, baboons and wildflowers. I see a bright green desert, slowly taking the place of what was there. What do my eyes tell me about this green desert? A bright green desert being turned into green notes, forex, cash, money, kwatchas, dollars, profit … Putting aside the brightness of the clipped green shrubs, growing in neatly patterned rows I wondered, profits for who and at what cost and what was ‘intruding’ on where? (Fieldwork Diary, 07 June 2012)

With sadness I noted the “Child Free Labour Zone” signs strategically placed at the entrances of some of these local tea estates, knowing that children once supplied the tea-picking labour, and that in some estates, perhaps this was still the case. The practice of using children to provide cheap labour has obvious impacts on a child’s health and wellbeing, it also has broader consequences for the community as a whole. Working children are not only denied access to formal education, they’re also excluded from developing traditional social roles in the family. Child labour practices thus have a lasting and significant impact on the loss of traditionally acquired local knowledge, including traditional medical knowledge, practices and beliefs.

There were other signs of the breakdown of local life, like the ‘No Hunting’ signs staked randomly between the neatly clipped rows of tea. I wrote in my field notes:

What could possibly survive in these “green deserts”, this mono-cultural ring that surrounds the mountain for as far as you see. The green is very attractive to the eye, with its precisely patterned rows, but ‘hunting’ what can you possibly hunt for in a Green desert? (Fieldwork Diary, 07 June 2012)

Other monocultures exacerbate the situation, like the eucalyptus trees. Like the tea, they have replaced valuable tracts of indigenous forests, woodlands and grasslands. They were planted as a source of fuelwood ‒ for the tea producing stations ‒ and are widely used in the rural and peri-urban areas as a fuel source now but they have not turned out to be the miracle trees they were expected to be. In fact, they consume vast water resources and yield much poorer timber yields in comparison with local indigenous tree species (Shiva, 1993a). In my field, sadly these eucalypt plantations have exacerbated the loss of biodiversity and thus the resources people need to continue practicing traditional medicine into the future. These obviously foreign impacts on the lives of local people were but a small sign of the dramatic influence that the outside world has had on the lives of local people. These impacts are not only felt in Malawi; they are a feature of life in most previously colonized lands. Now however, local people are faced with both the legacy of the destruction of their traditional ways at the same time as being drawn ever increasingly into the sphere of the commodification of life on a globalized scale.

In this month’s article I have explain the link between the imposition of foreign concepts and practices on the local landscape. In next month’s article I will explore these links further but in the meantime, if you would like further information about any aspect of my research, please email me at

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] Pigg, S. (1995). Acronyms and Effacement: Traditional Medical Practitioners (TMP) in International Health Development. Social Sciences and Medicine, 41(1), 47-68.

[ii][ii] Dupont. (2013). South Africa Approves Partnership of DuPont Business Pioneer Hi-Bred and Pannar Seeds. Retrieved from

[iii] Shiva, V. (1993a). Monocultures of the Mind. London: Zed Books.

[iv] Nangoma, D., & Nangoma, E. (2013). Climate change and adaptation strategies: a case study of the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve and its surroundings. Malawi: Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust. Retrieved from