How do Masai Herders Learn about Carbon Forestry

In 2018 Carbon Tanzania rolled out its “Carbon Champions” programme, an experimental scheme designed to communicate the complex nature of carbon forest projects to the communities of Makame WMA. We wanted to address the challenge, common to many rural development initiatives, of communicating complex plans and activities to local people who are both participants in, and beneficiaries of, such projects.

We were fortunate to be able to engage Saning’o Kimani, the son of Ole Dorup, an old friend of mine and traditional Masai Chief from the Ngorongoro Highlands. I have known Saning’o since 1997 when he was just a young boy, and since then he has gone on to gain a Diploma in Education from MontClair university in the USA. This training has put him in a unique position where he is able to combine modern educational approaches with indigenous cultural knowledge in traditional settings such as the Masai communities of the Makame WMA. We tasked him with selecting a group of young Carbon Champions from the communities who would then go out into their villages to disseminate the details of the carbon project to people who may never have the chance to attend a government meeting or formal village gathering.

I spoke to Saning’o recently on his return from the area where he had been assessing the effectiveness of this programme through interviews with the Carbon Champions.


The Power of Language

I asked Saning’o why he felt it was so important to use Maa, the local language of the Masai people, when explaining the complexities of keeping carbon locked up in forested areas to often uneducated Masai pastoralists. He told me that primarily it means that more people will be able to understand because, perhaps counterintuitively to an outsider, many local Masai people do not speak the national language, KiSwahili. But further to this, Saning’o highlighted a less obvious benefit of this approach:

“Using the local language brings trust if it comes from the residents themselves, it helps a lot.”

He emphasized how important trust is in these traditional societies, which in the not-so-distant past guarded their culture from the outside. He added that “the Carbon Champions are the advocates for the carbon project. Once they understand and they take it to the villages, then it’s easier for the villagers to understand what they are talking about, and it’s easier for them to accept the message from people they already know than from somebody else.”

Home is where the heart is

I asked him if there were particular approaches that worked better than others when trying to pass on some of these admittedly science-heavy and alien concepts. He told me that for him and the Carbon Champions it was easy, they simply spent time with community members where they were most comfortable, in their own familiar surroundings.

“They taught people at water points while they were watering their livestock, so there was no limit to how they went about the work. But the more successful Carbon Champions went from boma to boma (traditional homesteads), and people had a positive approach to that – they understood alot more.

African Perspectives

Saonig’o was very satisfied with the work of the Carbon Champions, and felt that they had all done a good job of reaching out to a good cross section of the communities, across what is a large landscape (the five villages in the WMA cover an area of approx. 450,000Ha). But I asked him whether the young Carbon Champions had faced any skepticism or resistance from members of the community. He gave two examples, starting with a group of older men who stressed how important land tenure was to them, telling one Carbon Champion that “…yes we do accept the message and we believe that conserving and protecting our forests and trees is in our own best interest. But we don’t want any benefits if we get asked to give up our land at some point.”

The elders also expressed the ongoing debate about who should bear the cost of responding to climate change, and who should be taking action. They went on to say, “…well, why should we prevent people cutting trees when you told us that factories also give off carbon, so why not just stop the factories working, if it really does affect the atmosphere?”. Good point!

The win-win scenario of carbon forestry

The carbon project relies on the communities enforcing their own commitments to protecting areas of natural forests within their villages. The revenue from carbon credit sales supports these actions, and I asked Saning’o whether the Carbon Champions had found widespread acceptance of this principle. He said that acceptance was largely universal, and that for most Masai pastoralists feeling that “it is very very easy for the carbon project to be part of our own culture in terms of protecting the grazing areas and protecting the forests” and to Saning’o this means that “they do really appreciate it does not go against any part of their culture.”

Wise heads

Finally I talked to Saning’o about his thoughts on improving the intervention and the way that we communicate better with the communities. He immediately responded that “there should be some elders who already understand it [the project] as elders do get a lot of respect from the community and the community listens to the elders more.”

And he added that, due to the structure of Masai society, “while it is a good thing to have young people educated about the project, also we can use the elders as ambassadors for what we aim to achieve.” He illustrated this point with an anecdote about a conversation he had with an old man in one village area.

“I found one elder in his boma and he understood a lot more than I expected, and he was willing to go with me to other bomas that were close by to just talk to people about it, and he was more listened to by the people. So this would be a great addition to the Carbon Champions programme.”

As always with our work, we live and learn, and we return to our work in Makame in 2018 with a better understanding of the communities and how to best share knowledge and learn from each other in delivering our ultimate goal – securing the wildlife-rich African savannah in which these traditional societies live.

Written by Carbon Tanzania Co-founder – Jo Anderson


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