The sun is just about to set. It is almost 7 pm in the Yaeda Valley in Northern Tanzania, and I am sitting on top of a rock overlooking the vast wilderness below me, as it shimmers in the golden hour. It is one of the most breathtaking views of my life, and I feel incredibly fulfilled and lucky to be here. My sandals broke climbing up here and I had to traverse the last hundred meters barefoot through the acacia shrub. I am unprepared to tackle this landscape and I realize how far out of my comfort zone I really am. This place is where we originated and evolved to become our own species, but I know I would not last much more than a day here without technology to guide me, feed me, and keep me warm at night. Even to get me off this rock and back to camp in the oncoming darkness.
Looking out over the valley made me think about my profession. I assess and determine ecosystems’ contribution to human well-being, called ecosystem services, and have spent many hours trying to grasp the value of nature. Many hours discussing whether you actually can, or should, value nature. Often, discussions end with (somewhat heated) arguments that nature is, in its intrinsic capacity and regardless of human utility, invaluable and assessing it is simply impossible, not to mention highly distasteful. The problem is though, practice most often dictates that all which is not valued is considered worthless, and intrinsic values become purely academic in the face of poverty and hardship.
This beautiful pristine landscape is indeed far from worthless. It has sustained the traditional Hadza lifestyle in Yaeda Valley for thousands and thousands of years, and they are the natural part of the ecosystem that I am not. Sitting on this rock, it is so clear to me just how much our lifestyle has uncoupled us from the natural world. We have lost the benefit of having nature and pristine ecosystems in our lives; we have even lost the ability to feel the decline in our own well-being with its destruction. And it seems there is no stopping it, the adjoining valleys to Yaeda have already been deforested and transformed into agricultural landscapes. They sustain a higher degree of economic development, because they have agricultural outputs with a marketable value.
That trend is also creeping over the ridges into Yaeda Valley, and until recently there was not much alternative for the Hadza, than to convert the acacia woodland if they wanted economic development. However, another option has become possible with payments for ecosystem services, in this case REDD+. Valuing ecosystems’ capacity to store carbon in the acacia woodlands and allow access to sell carbon offsets on a global financial market, has given the Hadza an opportunity to adapt to these changes on their own terms. It serves as an alternative to degrade nature for agricultural purposes and give up the prospects of retaining some of their traditional hunter-gather lifestyle, or at least have the option to choose it.
As far as I am concerned, we have no choice but to value nature, or at least parts of it. There needs to be other solutions to economic prosperity than to destroy ecosystems and convert wilderness. And we all have a responsibility to support the efforts communities control themselves, and which enable them to protect nature. Yaeda Valley is just as full of intrinsic and intangible values as always. Nothing is lost by addressing the marketable value of carbon storage, other than the prospect of the Hadza losing their place in the ecosystem and, as me, become dissociated visitors who need help to find their footing in the dark.
Written by Katrine Grace Turner MSc, PhD