Despite being known as the ‘Garden City,’ Malawi’s capital city Lilongwe faces increasing pressure on its green spaces. Due to rapid population growth, a product of urbanization, and a weak legal framework, as well as inadequate financing, Lilongwe, which is characterized by grasses and Miombo woodland, has witnessed massive environmental degradation, pollution, deforestation, and uncontrolled development. This is threatening biodiversity.
The city has also not realized the original vision of its development plan, which envisaged open spaces for arboretums and recreation parks in every residential area.
Critics blame the deterioration of Malawi’s parks and botanical gardens on the political situation and change to pluralistic politics in Malawi 21 years ago.
The change of government saw people encroaching on public land earmarked for recreational activities while other places were left to deteriorate due to lack of interest to finance their operations, said Allan Kwanjana, Lilongwe City Council Director of Parks, Recreation and Environment.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and the Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC) sold out land set aside for conservation, he said, but was quick to point out that only two public recreational centres, the Lilongwe Natural Sanctuary and the Lilongwe Botanical Gardens, survive — albeit on a shoestring budget.
The private sector has moved to address the situation by establishing recreational facilities such as the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, Ufulu Gardens, and Four Seasons Gardens among others, said Kwanjara.
Reasons for the deterioration of Malawi’s green spaces include negative personal attitudes of the authorities in the Civil Service machinery, lack of understanding of what a landscape architect does, and lack of financial resources, according to Abigail Khonje, chief landscape architect in Malawi’s Ministry of Public Works. Khonje raised these points at the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) Africa Forum held in Dubai in 2008. She also pointed out that City Councils are players in the development of landscape services and the provision of recreational facilities like parks and botanical gardens.
Recently, in Lilongwe, government stopped watering floral gardens around the capital city’s roundabouts because the Lilongwe Water Board has disconnected the Council over unpaid bills. While the department requires about $83, 000 per annum to effectively carry out its operations, it receives less than a quarter of the amount, an official said.
Preserving urban refuges
Despite deterioration of urban green spaces, government has managed to conserve two natural forests by turning them into protected areas: the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary and Lilongwe National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens.
The Lilongwe National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens is over 75 hectares and preserves naturally growing indigenous trees and exotic trees, along with animals, birds, shrubs and flowers.
The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre is within the Nature Sanctuary and spans 180 hectares in the heart of the city. The Centre, which is run as a trust, operates under international animal rehabilitation practices that support injured, orphaned and confiscated wild animals that have been traded illegally within Malawi. Rehabilitated animals are returned to the wild wherever possible. Some of the animals under rehabilitation in the wildlife centre include a lioness popularly known as Bella, which was rescued from Romania. There is also a leopard rescued from a snare in the Nyika National Park. The resident monkeys include a number of Vervet monkeys, blue monkey species, and olive and yellow baboons.
The centre, which offers urban dwellers the opportunity to see wildlife and helps disseminate useful information that will support urban and rural communities develop through eco-friendly routes, is one of the city’s prime recreational centres.
“There are very few recreational opportunities for families and groups to enjoy within Lilongwe, and there are certainly no opportunities for the majority of Malawians living within the city to enjoy a true wildlife experience,” said Jonathan Vaughan, director of the Wildlife Trust. The costs of traveling to, and entering one of Malawi’s National Parks or Forest Reserves, is a luxury that many Malawians cannot afford, he pointed out.
Meanwhile, staff members at the Lilongwe City Council’s Directorate of Parks, Recreation and Environment have been working to create a 13-hectare recreational park called the Eden Park. They have worked on eight hectares, where they have grown floral and tree plants and collected pieces of worn out pipes and assembled them.
The park is situated along the Lilongwe River at the exact point that government used to pump water and draw earth for the construction and landscaping of Capital Hill, the seat of government.
“We want to bring back the glory of the city,” said Kwanjara, explaining that government plans to partner with the private sector to operate recreational centres and upgrade the dam in uptown Area 10, a luxurious neighbourhood, for boating, fishing and entertainment.
The Directorate of Parks, Recreation and Environment is exploring ways to engage in urban biodiversity conservation, enhancement, utilisation and management, according to Kwanjana. “We want to facilitate understanding, communication and support among decision-makers, citizens and other stakeholders regarding urban biodiversity and the need for integrating biodiversity into planning and decision-making processes.”
Charles Mkula is a journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers and magazines in Malawi since 1998. He has also worked as a communications officer for the Secondary Centres Development Programme (SCDP), an urban development programme in Malawi set up with support from the German KfW to support urban development. Since his entry into the development field, Charles has been passionate about advancing rural and urban development in Malawi.
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