On the Road in Tanzania: Balancing Global Conservation with Local Development

By Kate McLetchie, Executive Director of the African Rainforest Conservancy

Kate is a guest blogger for Earth Day Network from the African Rainforest Conservancy.  She just returned from a trip halfway around the world to the forests of Tanzania. 

As the Executive Director of the African Rainforest Conservancy, the highlight of my job is always my annual trip to Tanzania to meet with our partners at the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group (TFCG) and visit projects in the field. This year was no different, and the two weeks I spent in Tanzania’s Eastern Arc Mountains and Coastal Forests left me full of the ideas, energy, and determination to do even more to conserve one of the most biodiverse, and personally I think most beautiful, places in the world. Named to Conservation International’s list of “ten most threatened forest hotspots” these forests have as little as 10 percent of their original forest habitat remaining, yet are home to at least 1,500 tree and plant species and 114 vertebrate species found nowhere else in the world, and store as much as one hundred million tons of carbon, which might otherwise be released into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

Although ARC supports 146 villages in eight mountain and coastal regions throughout Tanzania, I couldn’t possibly visit every project in such a short time.  So my trip began with a visit to Lindi – a coastal area so far south of Dar es Salaam that it practically calls Mozambique its next-door neighbor. What a journey!  After ten hours on the road, we spent the night in the lively town center; the next morning, after a breakfast of chapatti, papaya, and strong black tea, a dirt road lined with coconut palms guided us to the village of Kikomolela. In addition to learning more about the plans for a health clinic, community members discussed their current challenges and needs, how they use the forest, and what they are doing to conserve it. Later that afternoon, we visited the village of Likwaya, and when dusk approached we pitched our tents and spent the night under a blanket of stars so bright that there really would have been no need for electricity even if it were available. 

Kikomolela and Likwaya are two of seventeen villages in the Lindi region participating in TFCG’s REDD project (Reducing  Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). This project, supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seeks to financially compensate countries who have forests that are of global importance in reducing global climate change.So what exactly are Kikomolela, Likwaya, and other villages in the region doing to conserve their forests? For starters, they are preparing land use plans that zone the forest into land for conservation reserves, agricultural use, community infrastructure, and cemeteries. The goal of ARC’s work is to not deny communities the right to use the forests, but rather to encourage them to use them in sustainable ways.  Communities rely on the forests for their daily survival, including fuel wood for cooking, wild fruits and animals for food, medicinal plants for healing, water sources, building poles and timber for local construction, agriculture, and charcoal production (which is a source of income for many households). With the exception of agriculture (which in many communities has its own designated land), these activities are allowed to carry on in forested areas, but in a sustainable way and often with guidelines set out in village bylaws. This means doing things like introducing fuel-efficient cook stoves, only taking mature trees for timber/poles for construction, planting trees, and providing seed funding and training for small income-generating projects, so that communities do not have to depend on the forests to earn a living.

The more time I spent in the villages, the more evident it became that we have to take care of the people who we are asking to take care of these forests for the good of the rest of the world. After all these are our forests too. They clean the air we breathe, protect watersheds, and help to regulate the global climate. Again and again I heard from local people that the biggest challenges they face are access to clean drinking water (women and girls walk for hours to collect water that is rife with disease and in the case of Lindi region often saline due to its proximity to the coast), basic health services, and education (most villages are without secondary schools and some even lack primary schools).

But is it possible to simultaneously advance forest conservation and improve the lives of the communities who depend on them? If we build schools and health clinics, dig wells, and support new agricultural practices will people move in and exert even more pressure on the forest?

By the end of my two weeks, I had begun to form an answer. The key is finding balance between conservation and development. Once you have really good forest management in place that is when you can really focus on the community development aspects of the work. In addition, when it is time to help a community with their most immediate needs (education, health, and water), we should turn to those activities that will not directly enhance or increase deforestation. It is a long road ahead. And even though there will be plenty of bumps along the way, there will also be gorgeous coconut palms to guide us to a place where global conservation and local development harmoniously exist.

The African Rainforest Conservancy in partnership with the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group, has pledged to plant 1 million trees during its 2011-2012 planting season as part of Earth Day Network’s Billion Acts of Green campaign. Learn more at www.africanrainforest.org and www.tfcg.org