Advancing Community-Led Conservation Through Social Safeguards
By Kasper Agger | December 21, 2022
Mwamagembe, with a population of 6,500 inhabitants, comes across as a perfectly normal village in rural Tanzania. A dusty road runs through the village, lined with simple one-story buildings and a few restaurants where food is cooked on the open fire.
Life is generally at a slow pace here, except for the daily bus that travels on a 6-hour bumpy ride to the regional capital, Tabora. Livelihoods are mainly subsistence farming, livestock rearing, and petty trade — at a glance, all unremarkable. But if you look closer, Mwamagembe and its surrounding areas are anything but typical.
Innovative wildlife corridor management
Thick forest dominates parts of the landscape. Wildlife regularly roams these parts and farmers work the land within designated areas. Charcoal production that has decimated large swaths of forest across east and central Africa is now almost absent.
Such positive developments did not come by themselves. Rather, local community leaders in Mwamagembe and eight other villages have been working hand in hand with the Wildlife Conservation Society (with funding largely from USAID) and government partners, to designate 4,133 km2 as wildlife corridors, managed by the local population.
The corridors seek to protect critical habitat and facilitate safe passage for wildlife such as eland, giraffe, African wild dog, and elephants that disperse between government managed parks, game, and forest reserves, linking Ruaha-Rungwa with Ugalla-Moyowosi to the north and Katavi-Rukwa to the west.
The formal management of the corridors rests with the Village Natural Resource Committees (VNRC), made up of community leaders and members of the Village Council, while Village Forest Guards conduct day-to-day protection and ecological monitoring. These are men and women from the local area that went through a formal selection process and a 3-month training program, where they learned about biodiversity management and governance of the corridors before their formal appointment by their respective village assemblies.
Ensuring accountability and direct benefits
During the past 12 months, WCS staff and members of the VNRC have been working hand in hand with five of the nine wildlife corridor villages to pilot policies and procedures — known as social safeguards — to mitigate unintended negative impacts that the corridors might have on the local population.
These consist of a broad range of measures, including a code of conduct that governs the behavior of village forest guards, training in human rights, and — most recently — the setting up of a Grievance and Redress Mechanism that enables the population to raise complaints about management of the corridors and the conduct of forest guards, WCS staff, and members of the VNRC. Safeguard measures are put in place to ensure that conservation interventions are accountable and deliver direct benefits to the local population.
In addition, the corridor’s impact is assessed annually by a committee of local leaders and government technical staff, who evaluate a set of objective conservation and good governance performance measures that include corridor management, protection efforts, and wildlife presence.
Based on their overall score, each participating village is allocated up to $5,000 that the village can utilize to implement community and livelihood projects such as beekeeping, wild mushroom marketing, sustainable farming, renovation of schools, and other projects that benefit the community. Payments for 2021 averaged at $2,830 USD per village across the nine villages that have decided to allocate communal land to the wildlife corridors.
Each village natural resource committee has developed a land-use plan that lays out the specific rights and regulations for their part of the corridor. Some villages have maintained rights to water harvesting and collection of firewood at certain times of the year, and they have agreed on local bylaws with fines of up to $25 for activities that destroy habitat such as debarking of trees, grazing, and farming inside the corridor.
Revenue generated from the fines are allocated to community projects. In this way, safeguard measures help to mitigate abuse and ensure transparency in the governance structure.
The corridors are still under pressure
Despite direct community benefits and positive biodiversity outcomes resulting from the corridors, encroachment of farming and grazing inside the corridors is increasing — mainly due to population growth and migration into the area. During a recent trip through one of the corridors, habitat destruction was clearly visible, with woodland being cut down and land cleared for subsistence farming.
The tides of change are fast approaching Mwamagembe village, and there is great risk that it will not maintain its pristine environment for much longer. Investments in innovative financing for conservation are still needed to ensure that local populations maintain direct management authority of their communal land, while preserving biodiversity and deriving direct community benefits.
Kasper Agger is Regional Community and Safeguards Coordinator, Sudano-Sahel at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).