In southern Tanzania, conservation strengthens community resilience while uplifting women

Project addressed the intersection of environmental, climate, and socioeconomic challenges

Two women smile as they tie up newly harvested plants

Carpeted with grassy savannas and dry woodlands, Nachingwea District in southern Tanzania is a vibrantly biodiverse landscape. It’s also home to a myriad of communities that rely on subsistence agriculture.

Nachingwea’s residents are uniquely vulnerable to the intensifying droughts and floods that are driven by the worsening climate crisis. Take food security, with a 2016 survey reporting that 91% of households have very inadequate dietary diversity, making them less resilient to stressors such as the impact of drought on crop harvests. On top of that, norms saddle women with care work and gender inequities reduce women’s access to financial resources, leaving them with fewer resources to adapt and less capacity to cope with intensifying climate impacts.

In the past, conservation efforts and socioeconomic development work were siloed. Often, large-scale conservation initiatives prioritized protected areas and other technical management solutions and failed to adequately consult or collaborate with local communities. These efforts often frustrated locals—and failed at their goals. 

“Conservation initiatives were not acceptable to the people,” said Daniel Katebalila, a former program officer with the CARE-WWF Alliance, a partnership that brings together WWF’s biodiversity conservation and natural resource management expertise and CARE’s gender equality, economic development and food systems expertise to strengthen the livelihoods and power of women in areas disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. “Previously, the nature of conservation was not about community benefits, it was about law enforcement. ‘Don’t go in that area, don’t cut trees.’”

The CARE-WWF Alliance demonstration plot, where farmers learned by applying climate-smart farming techniques alongside their traditional practices.

Rehema Salum harvests sesame. She is part of the CARE-WWF Alliance's Farmer Field and Business School.

“Previously, the nature of conservation was not about community benefits, it was about law enforcement. ‘Don’t go in that area, don’t cut trees.’ We had to show communities that they could benefit from conservation.”

Daniel Katebalila
Program Officer, CARE-WWF Alliance

For instance, people might poach rare wildlife to make enough money to feed their families. Using law enforcement to address this didn’t tackle economic inequality, the root cause. This led to a key question: Could communities sustain themselves and be financially stable while also protecting the region’s magnificent biodiversity? And how could these communities work with nature to build sustainable livelihoods? It was from this question that the CARE-WWF Alliance’s first project in Tanzania was born.

An intersectional approach

The Alliance project acknowledged the interlinked nature of environmental, economic, and social challenges. The region’s lush, resource-rich forests are an example. When the Alliance team first approached communities about forest protection, they were wary.

“We had to show communities that they could benefit from conservation,” Katebalila said. In fact, sustainably managing natural resources, such as timber, can provide reliable income and deepen the relationship between people and forests. 

A sesame plant is watered.

Ester Issa Amuri, a member of the Farmer Field and Business School. She received farm training and financial support. 

The project—implemented in six villages from December 2015 through June 2019—took a multi-pronged approach, aiming to expand climate-smart agricultural practices, support sustainable livelihood opportunities for women, invest in community-based conservation, and bolster participatory governance. 

“They reduced hunger, improved infrastructure, and increased agricultural production. Mbondo village... [became] the leader in sesame production in the district.”

Raphael Ajetu
Head of the Agriculture Department, Nachingwea District

Supporting farmers from the ground up

In the past, farmers—who are mostly women in Tanzania—took a slash-and-burn approach to creating new agricultural fields to increase production. To shift this, CARE’s learning-by-doing Farmer Field and Business School training equipped farmers to experiment not only with new crop varieties but also with climate-smart agricultural practices side by side with their traditional practices. This demonstrated, for example, the value of rotating crops on the same land for multiple seasons using climate-resilient varieties.

“Some people asked for us to come to their [individual farm] plot to observe, but not advise. They wanted to learn to do it themselves,” said former Alliance project manager Christina John. This gave farmers, who are naturally risk-averse because their livelihoods depend on their harvests, a chance to see for themselves what works better and to take an active role in adapting to climate change and reducing slash-and-burn practices that contribute to forest degradation.

By 2019, communities had protected 102,788 acres of forest, 98% through participatory forest management. A key question in any conservation project is how to ensure accountability for people who break the rules. In Nachingwea, community members monitor themselves, reducing the distrust that can be created by bringing in outside enforcers. Locals take turns monitoring the forest to look out for illegal logging, and fire brigades watch for slash-and-burn fires.

Members of the Mbondo Village Natural Resource Committee in their community-managed forest reserve. They are monitoring for illegal logging, poaching, or farming.

The Upendo group farm in the village of Kilimarondo.

For the communities of Mbondo and Majonanga, sustainable timber harvesting, a core component of participatory forest management, generated $31,306 in two years. That's almost 60 times the average Tanzanian farmer’s income over the same period. While a small portion of that money supports the district government’s forest management services, 95% is allocated to communities for them to spend on local priorities. These priorities have included building a preschool and securing health insurance for vulnerable elders.

In addition, business and marketing training equipped small-scale farmers with the skills to develop their own green trades, such as supplying drought-resistant seeds or selling sustainably produced honey, soaps, or clothing. Ultimately, women established 53% of the new small or medium-sized businesses supported by the project. This helped them to diversify their income sources, increasing their resilience in the face of climate change.

Through the project, communities "reduced hunger, improved infrastructure, and increased agricultural production,” said Raphael Ajetu, head of the Agriculture Department for the Nachingwea District. “Mbondo village... [became] the leader in sesame production in the district.” 

A model of inclusive conservation

As someone who had only worked on social and community development projects previously, Katebalila started out unsure about the Nachingwea initiative. But in the end, “learning the conservation perspective shifted my thinking a lot. I came to the conclusion that conservation and development are inseparable,” he said. “In the past, there were ideas that conservation is all about law enforcement. It’s actually all about showing that conservation benefits communities. The project proved that.”

Yasin Mbogo picks sesame. He is a member of the CARE-WWF Alliance's Farmer Field and Business School.

Harvesting sesame in Nachingwea. 

Communities can face challenges when projects led by international non-profit organizations come to a close. Not so in Nachingwea. Because the project was implemented by local governments and existing community organizations, they simply continued the work after the initiative concluded. Key to ensuring the project’s long-term sustainability was building trust with local community and listening to their feedback, whether through a suggestion box, reflection sessions, or community-based scorecards. At annual reflection meetings, local leaders and CARE-WWF Alliance staff shared their perspectives on what was working well and what could be improved. A biannual community scorecard exercise also enhanced collaboration and accountability between local authorities and community members.

“It helps communities visualize that ‘this project is our own,’” said Katebalila. It also provides a roadmap for them to advocate for themselves. When a leader began exploiting natural resources after a change in local government, people mentioned that in the next scorecard process. As a result, district officials became involved and worked with community members to resolve the issue.

Indeed, conservation can generate lasting benefits and help communities to invest in their priorities. By engaging people in both development and conservation activities that addressed the root causes of inequality and ecosystem degradation, the project shifted perceptions, improved livelihoods, and protected biodiversity.

“The community now knows how important forests are and their value,” said Said Malemla, chair of the Mbondo Village Natural Resource Committee. “As a result, they are all working to protect them.”

By the numbers

  • 102,788 acres were designated for natural resource management, 98% under participatory forest management.
  • The adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices led to a 94% increase in crop yields.
  • Almost half of the 55 Alliance-supported community-based organizations, such as conservation groups, implemented a gender strategy to increase women’s influence in local decision-making.
  • 1,183 people adopted at least two practices that increased their climate resilience.

More about the Nachingwea project: An illegal logger in Tanzania becomes a forest defender

Selestine Majembe (left) and Inocencia Michael (right), both from Mbondo, carry cassava home from their farm.