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Unsustainable trade-offs: provisioning ecosystem services in rapidly changing Likangala River catchment in southern Malawi


Provisioning ecosystem services of the Likangala River Catchment in southern Malawi are important for livelihoods of those living there. Remote sensing, participatory mapping and focus group discussions were used to explore the spatio-temporal changes and trade-offs in land-cover change from 1984 to 2013, and how that affects provisioning ecosystem services in the area. Communities derive a number of provisioning ecosystem services from the catchment. Forty-eight species of edible wild animals (including birds), 28 species of edible wild plants and fungi, 22 species of medicinal plants, construction materials, ornamental flowers, firewood, honey, gum, reeds and thatch/weaving grasses were derived from the catchment and used by local communities. These provisioning services are under threat from land-use change within two “hot-spots”, Zomba Mountain and mouth of the river at Lake Chilwa. Zomba Mountain has experienced losses in forests and gains in shrublands, and Lake Chilwa area saw losses of forests, wetlands and shrublands due to increased areas under cultivation. Extrapolation of trends of land cover change in the catchment until 2023 revealed that forests and wetlands will occupy less than 2% of the catchment, while urban areas will grow to over 5% of catchment area. The main driver for land-use change is need for expansion of agricultural land for food production. Participatory mapping and focus group discussions point towards a decline in provisioning services in the catchment and spill-over effects to other catchments. This requires a holistic approach to address the drivers of land-use change for effective management of this ecosystem.

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The study was funded through NorthWest University’s Ph.D. bursary. All community members who participated in the mapping and focus group discussions are thanked. Preparation time by PD, PM and CS for the paper was supported by the South African Research Chairs Initiative of the Dept of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation of South Africa. Any opinion, finding, conclusion or recommendation expressed in this material is that of the authors and the NRF does not accept any liability in this regard.

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Correspondence to Deepa Pullanikkatil.

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Pullanikkatil, D., Mograbi, P.J., Palamuleni, L. et al. Unsustainable trade-offs: provisioning ecosystem services in rapidly changing Likangala River catchment in southern Malawi. Environ Dev Sustain 22, 1145–1164 (2020).

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  • Ecosystems trade-offs
  • Land-use change
  • Likangala River
  • Livelihoods
  • Long-term change
  • Mapping
  • Participatory GIS