In historic milestone, Malawi fishing communities take true ownership over local natural resource management

September 3, 2018

The notion of participatory fisheries management isn’t new in Malawi. It was first introduced 25 years ago as a means to address collapsing fish species populations in the country’s lakes, which have been a vital source of income and nutrition here for generations. The idea, essentially, was that management of these critical resources should be decentralized and placed in the hands of trained, capable local communities, using an ecosystems approach.

This gained traction over the years, and in 2001, the government of Malawi took the significant step of adopting the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy, which set guiding principles for participatory fisheries management, including six steps that must be taken to ensure community readiness for co-management with the government. 

Yet real local ownership and decentralization remained elusive, despite the efforts of several internationally funded fisheries programs.

Recently, though, that changed. On Aug. 17, lakeshore communities and the government of Malawi marked a major milestone. The Department of Fisheries and 36 Local Fisheries Management Authorities, or LFMAs, gathered at the Malawi College of Fisheries to officially sign agreements for local ecosystems’ management. Represented among the LFMAs were 119 Beach Village Committees from Lake Malawi and Lake Malombe. The management agreements grant user rights to communities to manage demarcated areas in an ecologically sustainable manner to the benefit of the environment as well as the communities to which they belong. 

It’s a goal that Pact’s Fisheries Integration of Societies and Habitats, or FISH project, has been working toward since 2014. Funded by USAID, the FISH project uses a range of interventions to help communities legally, capably and sustainably manage their natural resources to improve biodiversity and adapt to climate change. 

“The signing of management agreements is a watershed moment in the history of participatory fisheries management in Malawi,” explains Dr. Daniel Jamu, Deputy Chief of Party for the FISH project. “Now, Local Fisheries Management Authorities have legal recognition to manage the fishery on behalf of the Director of Fisheries. This signifies full decentralization of authority from the central government to the LFMAs.”

FISH is the first development project to successfully see through the signing of management agreements – a testament to the integrated approach that Pact applies. Pact understands that communities and local government structures need much more than formal registration to be effective. Communities need to learn the science behind natural resource management, and they must have strengthened governance systems, alternative and sustainable livelihoods, and improved capacity to manage their resources in an equitable, adaptive way.

Throughout the FISH project, Pact and its partners have mentored and supported communities every step of the way as they have sought to restore their lakes and fish populations amid challenges such as poverty and climate change. Now, they not only hear that they are responsible for their future and the care of their environment, they also see it in formal, legal documentation that is recognized at the highest levels of the government.

This is critical for ensuring that FISH’s results last, says Alan Brooks, the project’s chief of party.

“The signed management agreements give extended ownership to local communities represented by elected Beach Village Committee members,” Brooks explains.

“In this way, communities realize the benefits from their own collaborative efforts to effectively manage the fisheries, which means sustainability is almost certainly assured.”


Led by Pact, FISH is implemented by a consortium of partners, including the University of Rhode Island, Christian Aid, Community Initiative for Self Reliance, Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, and Emmanuel International. The project is generously paid for by the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Lead photo: The Acting Director of the Department of Fisheries, Dr. Friday Njaya, shakes hands with Njelengo Manyengo, the chair of the Sub-Fisheries Association of Chowe on Lake Malombe, while Traditional Authority Sultan Chowe looks on.