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A community conservation revolution in Tanzania

Last month I was invited to participate in a workshop aimed at transforming the way community conservation benefits are provided to local villages around the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania. This was not a new topic for me—my Ph.D. dissertation examined conservation strategies in 20 villages across this ecosystem, exploring the costs and benefits local people perceive from conservation Despite decades of community conservation activity, not only were local people not perceiving benefits, but also less than a third of the people living in the ecosystem knew about Serengeti National Park. Imagine if the majority of people in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming did not know about Yellowstone! One reason for this lack of knowledge is that community-based conservation efforts have traditionally given villages public goods like schools, village offices, and boreholes. While important for development, the problem with public goods for conservation is that, by definition, everyone, including those who might harm conservation efforts, gets to use a public good. Poachers or others negatively affecting conservation cannot be excluded from using a school or borehole. There is a great need for development in this area, in which people live on $0.16 to $0.50 a day, but conservation stakeholders must stop pretending that these development activities aid conservation.

The German bank KfW wanted to provide development assistance in the ecosystem, but not without positive implications for conservation. An easy ask in theory, but the Tanzanian National Parks (TANAPA) and Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) had been trying to do this for decades with their public good benefit schemes. How could conservationists suddenly develop a link between infrastructure and conservation? This challenge is what brought me to a three-day workshop in Arusha, Tanzania, along with key individuals from TANAPA and FZS, the head of Serengeti National Park, government officials, and 30+ key stakeholders. Our task was to come up with conservation criteria for use in selecting which villages get money for their village projects. Each criterion had to address key conservation challenges and have a set of metrics for measurable and transparent assessment of village conservation performance. Villages selected with these criteria will receive money for public goods, but they will also need to show positive impacts on conservation if they want access to these funds.

The work we did at the workshop marked a fundamental shift in conservation benefit thinking; however, we were still constrained by the requirement to provide money for village infrastructure (i.e., public goods). This led us to concerns regarding whether villages will be motivated to continue improving their conservation performance after receiving their funds. The World Bank economist in the room likened our plan to paying an employee their annual salary on the first day of the year and asking them to then come to work every day thereafter. Our solution: asking the funding party to amend their designation of funds. Rather than providing a school, could the aim beto improve education in the village? This could begin with a school, but continue with teacher houses, latrines, school lunches, etc., provided the village continues to meet the conservation criteria. This then would provide a continuous incentive for villages to improve their conservation performance.

We will have to see how this project plays out, but I hope the revolution is beginning.

Lead Scientist of NiSE


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