Three years ago, David Banks went to a remote community in Tanzania to enlist the residents in ongoing efforts aimed at protecting the endangered chimpanzee population in the region.
“Frankly, we got nowhere with that,” said Banks.
Banks is director of the Africa program for the Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s leading environmental organizations (America’s largest such group) focused for most of its 60 years on buying parcels of land to preserve them from humanity’s frequently harmful activities.
“Nobody wanted to talk about chimpanzees,” said Banks. “They wanted to talk about problems with health care, especially concerning childbirth and reproductive health issues.”
It was one of those Eureka! experiences, he said, which launched an entirely new strategy for the environmental organization made manifest in a project on and around Tanzania’s massive Lake Tanganyika known as Tuungane (“Let’s Unite” in Kiswahili).
“This is one of the poorest places in the world,” said Banks, noting that many of the communities around Lake Tanganyika had high birth rates with high infant mortality rates, high rates of mothers dying in childbirth, severe malnutrition and most of the other typical diseases of poverty.
“It’s also a very important place in terms of its biological diversity,” he said. Tanzania’s massive lake is one of the world’s largest and deepest, he added, with something like 17 percent of the planet’s fresh water, full of many unique creatures like fresh water corals and crabs and still in fairly good shape ecologically.
Banks’ Nature Conservancy colleague, Elizabeth Gray, had a year earlier run up against a similar obstacle in these Tanzanian communities — caused not by the local residents but by the typical NGO (non-governmental organization) approach to trying to help the poor.
“Some groups were just working on fishing while others were just working on forestry or education,” said Gray, whose focus is on helping poor communities in Africa adapt to climate change.
On Lake Tanganyika, she explained, climate change has reduced the winds that churned the water, which increases its biotic productivity. The impact of warming with less wind and reduced lake-churning has meant the critical dietary and income-producing fisheries are on the decline.
“The way aid and development typically works is that agencies or donors fund solutions for specific problems,” Gray said. “Most of these projects ended at the lake’s edge. People were working on their projects but nobody was looking at what was happening to the lake.”
Banks added: “For the Nature Conservancy, health needs and poverty were our lake’s edge. We had hard conceptual edges as well … It sounds obvious now, but what we were forced to recognize is that we need to look at these ecosystem goals in terms of what’s healthy for people as well as for the natural world.”
That reckoning led the Nature Conservancy, for the first time in its history, to work in reproductive health.
The Tuungane project is a comprehensive, collaborative project with partner organizations like the Jane Goodall Institute, Pathfinder International, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Tanzanian government that is aimed at empowering communities on a number of fronts at the same time:
- Improved health services, especially focused on reproductive health and child’s health
- Enhancing local governance and community participation
- Adaptive fisheries and forests management, market developments
- Environmental education and training
In short, the Nature Conservancy is trying to strengthen and improve the overall welfare of these poor communities based on the belief that a strong and healthy community will translate, over time, into benefits to the forest, the lake, the ecosystem in general – and, hopefully, to the chimps.
This includes working with communities to give them more political power, Banks added. Poor people in many parts of eastern Africa are increasingly at risk of being displaced from their tribal lands, he said, either by governments or foreign investors moving in or simply population growth.
In northern Tanzania, one of the Nature Conservancy’s projects was to help one of the planet’s last groups of hunter-gatherers, known as the Hadza, gain legal title to their land.
“They didn’t want individual title but rather communal title,” Banks said. The Tanzanian government granted the community title to their hunting lands, a first for Tanzania and fairly unusual in general.
“We started out as an organization just trying to protect the land from people,” Banks said. “There are places that this is still important to do.”
“But what’s become clear, and I would say more acute, is the recognition that the idea here is to protect the natural world because that’s where our clean water, air, our food and often our livelihoods all come from,” he said.
“The goal is protecting the entire ecosystem, for nature and for people.”