Over-fishing. Deforestation. Sprawl. People in developing countries and their environments can sometimes appear to be at odds—but an innovative new project from the Nature Conservancy blends the two to improve people and conservation.
At stake is the world’s longest lake, Tanganyika, which holds 17% of our planet’s fresh water. An amazing ecological system in its own right, this inland ocean, which is nestled between Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Zambia, boasts more than 300 fish species.
But this beautiful landscape is also in trouble. Alongside this ecological bounty sits a fast-growing community. In the area surrounding Lake Tanganyika where the new project has sprung up, 49% of the population is under 15, and the average household size is 6.7 people—putting it on par for the highest in the world. These farmers and fishers live close to the land, and their livelihoods depend on nature. However, the lake’s deep water fishery, their primary source of protein, has decreased 30% over the last few decades.
"People on the lakeshore have shifted to agriculture and they’re eating a lower quality diet than they were 20 to 30 years ago," says M. Sanjayan, Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist. "Today, people are existing more on cereal diet," he says. All of this puts the delicate balance of the lake in danger.
"The people there have low access to education and almost no access to health care," explains Sanjayan. "None have electricity, or refrigeration for drugs, or any sort of medical treatment. So all of this creates a situation where you have a desperately poor rural community that is getting poorer, alongside a collapsing environment at their door."
This year, the Nature Conservancy is working with Pathfinder International in Western Tanzania to prove that protecting the health of individuals and their natural resources (food, water, soil) will improve their livelihoods significantly as opposed to only treating one issue.
This is how it works: The Tuungane project focuses on fish and agriculture, managing the fisheries in a sustainable way and creating a forest and water protection plan.
Sanjayan explains that fishing and agriculture are utterly intertwined. "Runoff from agriculture pollutes water, which makes water more desirable for snails, which transmit sleeping sickness disease to humans, getting in through your legs when wading in muddy water." That snail-borne sickness is debilitating to people, but fish love eating the snails.
"So by restoring the fisheries, we help prevent disease from spreading, and also more fish are available to local communities," says Sanjayan.
The collaboration will be putting into place no-fishing zones, limits on what people are catching, and they are working with local leaders to change agriculture practices to reduce the amount of runoff that goes into the lake. At the same time, Pathfinder is providing health care services, and making contraceptives available to local women.
"It’s kind of a big leap to think this holistically about an environment, but we need to put the two pieces together if we want the community to survive. It is a neat way to show that development organizations can effectively work with conservation groups, and those goals can come together," says Sanjayan.