The Road to Understanding Forest Communities

On a cold, grey morning in the southern Masai Steppe, the Masai elder arrived wrapped in his shuka (a traditional tartan patterned robe), a thick winter jacket for his upper body and a pair of driving goggles pulled up onto his wool hat covered forehead. August in northern Tanzania is distinctly chilly, so these items are required garments for a motorbike journey through the bush. We were in Kibaya, the capital of Kiteto District for a two-day conservation action planning workshop organized by The Nature Conservancy, and the elder remained impassive and cloaked against the cold all day, keeping his counsel. Half way through day two he rose to speak. The subject under discussion was how to ensure the health of the environment and to conserve forests in the Makame Wildlife Management Area, which contains his village, and he simply stated (speaking only his tribal language, Maa) that by following traditional Masai grazing and land-use practices, over-grazing and deforestation would be avoided.

I generally avoid meetings and seminars where groups of people are simply going through the motions of exchanging views and making empty statements about “needing to take action” or “committing to long-term change”, but Carbon Tanzania had been invited to this workshop as part of the collaboration of organisations implementing the Endangered Ecosystems of Northern Tanzania project. As a group we aim to integrate the livelihood needs of the Masai pastoralist communities throughout the Masai Steppe and Rift Valley of Northern Tanzania with the sustainable management of the habitats on which these lifestyles depend.

Hearing the elder talk of traditional grazing practices and the pastoralists’ seasonal use of natural reources was heartening. As our part of the project Carbon Tanzania is developing the Makame Masailand Carbon Partnership – a system of forest conservation activities implemented by the communities that will reduce the current deforestation in these areas and allow us to generate carbon offsets. If Masai communities can protect their grazing lands, that contain huge tracts of wildlife-rich savannahs and forests, against illegal agricultural expansion, then their traditional lifestyle will be safe. Our job is to find companies, individuals and organisations who will invest in forest conservation and rural livelihoods through the purchase of these carbon offsets.

But being at the meeting in person made me realize how important it is to involve community members in these planning processes, and how important it is that we are there to listen ourselves. For Carbon Tanzania the project will involve fairly complex processes such as measuring tree biomass, satellite mapping and land-use planning, while for many members of the communities they simply want to have the security and space to live out their lives as their forefathers have done for centuries.

Written by Carbon Tanzania Co-founder Jo Anderson