A policy implementation analysis of soil conservation practices by shallholder farmers in the Blantyre agricultural development division of Malawi.
Agriculture contributes about 70 percent of Malawi's Gross Domestic Product and sustains the livelihood of over 85 percent of the rural population. Soil erosion, which has reached alarming proportions, is threatening this resource base. Despite being rated the most serious environmental problem, soil erosion research lags behind in the listing of agricultural research priorities, particularly with regard to factors influencing the implementation of soil conservation policy and legislation. This study aimed to assess the impact of such policy implementation on smallholder farmer soil conservation practices. A postal, self administered, structured questionnaire was used to interview twenty-three farmers and fourteen agricultural extension staff members. The questions were designed to assess the influence of their perceptions of soil erosion as a problem and its causes. They also sought to assess how effectively relevant policy had been implemented before and after independence. Socio-economic information was additionally elicited from the farmers. After preliminary analysis of these questionnaires, ten days was spent in the field verifying data collected. A Spearman's Rank correlation analysis at 95 percent confidence level was carried out between various components of the farmers' socioeconomic profile data and their responses to the perception questions. Perceptions regarding different aspects of soil erosion and conservation were found to be influenced by the sex, age and educational level of respondents. The study revealed that both farmers and extension staff perceived soil erosion as a problem, had a sound knowledge of the mechanics of the process and attributed it to anthropogenic factors. While both farmers and extension staff attributed declining yields and fertility to accelerated soil erosion, they appeared to have difficulty in identifying physical indicators of such activity in the field. The study also revealed that both believed the top-down approach of the pre-independence period and the post-independence to 1990 period, had been partially effective. Since 1990, policy implementation has become more effective as a result of a more democratic governance and increased extension staff awareness of sustainability concepts which stress the need to incorporate the aspirations of farmers in a bottom-up implementation. This awareness led to the formulation of a new soil and water conservation policy in 1996 which ensures the voices of decision makers are taken into account in policy review. Once legislated, this policy bodes well for further improvements in soil conservation efforts in Malawi. However, the study also revealed that effective implementation of this policy will be dependent on the government providing adequate support and skills to both extension staff and farmers.