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Are conservation policies a driver of deforestation in Tanzania?

A pile of illegally cut timber discovered by a patrol group in Tanzania. Photo by Sophie Tremblay

A pile of illegally cut timber discovered by a patrol group in Tanzania. Photo by Sophie Tremblay

  • Authors of this article believe that conservation initiatives are among the causes of deforestation in Tanzania, which has one of the highest deforestation rates in East Africa.
  • The authors believe that “attribution of deforestation to the actions of poor and land dependent rural citizens of Tanzania are…unfair, damaging and unhelpful in directing conservation action.”
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

Deforestation in Tanzania is often attributed to unsustainable charcoal production, shifting cultivation, overgrazing and illegal timber harvesting. This is, for instance, the case in The REDD Desk’s resource on Tanzania, but is also reflected in many other popular scientific and media articles.

Such attribution of deforestation to the actions of poor and land dependent rural citizens of Tanzania are, in our view, unfair, damaging and unhelpful in directing conservation action.

While it is not outright untrue that practices of charcoal production, shifting cultivation, overgrazing and timber harvesting contributes to deforestation and forest degradation, one might – and should – ask what compels people to engage in such activities? Poverty and lack of alternatives are obvious reasons and thinking about these would lead to further questions, such as: why a country with a decade of one of the highest growth rates in the world have not done more to alleviate rural poverty and provide livelihood alternatives?

In addition to asking such fundamental questions, analyses must acknowledge that deforestation in Tanzania is driven by, among other, the very conservation policies that are put in place to arrest it.

For instance, the forestry and land legislation provides incentives for villagers to convert unreserved forests and woodlands into other land uses. This is so because villagers have no rights to trees on unreserved areas even if they are found within the boundaries of their own village jurisdiction. The trees comprising such forests on village land are seen as the property of central government, and forest officers can allocate licenses to harvest such trees with minimal benefits accruing to villagers.

However, forest officers do not have a legal mandate to ensure that tree cover on unreserved lands is maintained. The power over village land is vested in the village government, which at any time can allocate such land to other uses such as agriculture.

Further, Tanzanian forest officers are incapable to ensure forest conservation outside (as well as inside) forest reserves due to, among other, inadequate human and financial resources. Thus, the harvesting they sanction happens in the absence of any knowledge about its ecological sustainability.

Finally, the Tanzanian Forest Act gives villagers the right to declare village land forest reserves out of such forests on village land, which would allow them to retain all benefits from their utilization. However, in many places villagers are hesitant to do so as it implies a loss of their power to independently change the land use. Further, in practice this option is only available in areas where donors support forest offices in the implementation process and there are few examples of successful implementation in forests with substantial timber values.

These governance problems are compounded by other developments in Tanzania, including other conservation initiatives. Tanzania has seen a dramatic growth in the share of land under conservation over the past decades. While no one knows exactly how large the share is, there is no doubt that it is higher than 40 percent and growing.

Recently, the eyes of conservationists in Tanzania have fallen upon village lands that lie adjacent to or between protected areas. Many such lands are now targeted for Wildlife Management Areas and research has demonstrated manipulative and haphazard implementation processes that are likened to land grabbing and seen as illegitimate by villagers.

Furthermore, fallow or pastoral lands – that appear ‘unused’ but are actually utilized for seasonal livestock grazing – are increasingly targeted for large-scale agribusiness or forest plantation investments. Accordingly, rural residents in Tanzania are seeking to protect their authority over village land, which, under the current state of affairs, implies another incentive to clear forests and/or start cultivating the land so that the land is clearly not ‘unused’.

Thus, rather than blaming charcoal producers, shifting cultivators, pastoralists and timber harvesters, NGOs, policy makers and analysts with an interest in the issue of deforestation and forest degradation in Tanzania must, as a minimum, take another hard look at the governance regime of land and forests, which currently appears counterproductive to the aim of addressing this development.

Emphasis in such scrutiny should be on ways to enhance rural peoples’ capabilities to benefit from natural tree cover maintenance and expansion inside and outside forest reserves. This could be seen as a first step in the direction of tackling the more thorny issues of land dependence and uneven development that underlie processes of deforestation in Tanzania.

Banner image: A pile of illegally cut timber discovered by a patrol group in Tanzania. Photo by Sophie Tremblay

Editor’s Note: This commentary was written in response to an article published by Mongabay on October 7, 2016, entitled “Despite conservation efforts, Tanzania’s forests still under pressure.”


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