The fate of Lake Malawi hangs in the balance. The dispute between Tanzania and Malawi over the lake’s boundaries, spurred on Malawi’s issuance of exploration licenses to two companies, Surestream Petroleum and SacOil, eager to prospect for oil beneath the waters, is currently being discussed by the Africa Forum of former African Heads of State and Government.
Many people in the lakeshore areas are dependent on the lake as a source of income through fishing; about 1.5 million Malawians and 600,000 Tanzanians depend on Africa’s third-largest lake for food, transportation and other daily needs. The decision on boundaries and future oil exploration will have a significant impact on people’s lives. If there were an oil spill on the lake, the lake could take 700 years to recover, according to Maxon Ngochera, a Principal Fisheries Research Officer and marine biologist in Malawi.
The progress the countries are making in resolving the dispute has been the focus of most media attention over the last 6 months, while the impact the decision may have from the perspective of lakeshore communities is not well recorded. Today, “Lake Malawi Dispute Instils Fear in Fisherfolk“, an article written by well-known Malawian journalist Mabvuto Banda, offers a small glimpse into the lives of the people likely to be the most directly affected by decisions made at the national and regional levels.
According to Banda’s article, communities in Northern Malawi have been accused of trespassing in waters that Tanzania claims as its own. One man who makes a living from fishing, Martin Mhango, recalled being detained and beaten up in October 2012 by Tanzanian security forces for crossing over to the Tanzanian side. Both Tanzanians and Malawians have been fishing on both sides of the lake for many years; Mhango has been fishing freely for 33 years on the lake.
They stopped me, dragged me to the beach where they beat me up and detained me. They told me that I had trespassed and was fishing on the Tanzanian side. I was told to never fish on their side again.
Another fisherman explained that he had belonged to two villages when he was growing: one of the Tanzanian side and one of the Malawian side. Since the governments have been disputing the borders, people from both countries are scared of fishing on the other side. This has resulted in a decline in income for the fishermen interviewed for the article.
The Forum has 3 months to make a decision on the boundaries. If the dispute is not resolved, the case will be presented before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ has always ruled in favour of a median border. Malawi’s claim is based on an 1890 colonial agreement (Heligoland) made between the colonial administrations at the time, Germany and Britain, and Tanzania now claims 50% is part of its territory.