It’s been just over a week since I returned from Tanzania and have finally responded to the last of my emails. While my inbox may now be clear, the impressions of my trip will certainly take far longer to fade.
This trip held a double meaning for me. Not only was I seeing ‘in real life’ the people and forest carbon project I have been working with for almost two years, but I was also returning to sub-Saharan Africa, where many of the sights, smells and sounds of my childhood are housed, and a large part of my heart resides.
Even in the face of some recent and fairly full-on criticism, I have never doubted the effectiveness of a good, high-integrity REDD+ (forest conservation) project, both in terms of the climate, and the positive impacts they can bring to the communities and biodiversity on the ground. However, this trip fuelled me with even greater ammunition and energy for promoting and communicating the myriad benefits of carbon finance for climate, people and nature.
My time in Tanzania included both a project visit and a series of communications training workshops that I delivered to the core operations and project team members. I began with a trip to the Yaeda-Eyasi Landscape Project – Carbon Tanzania’s first and most well-established forest carbon project. It combines two stunning areas of the Rift Valley and is populated by a number of communities including the Hadzabe hunter-gatherers and the Datooga pastoralists.
Despite one of the main reasons for my visit being the trainings I gave at the end of the week, I feel like I learnt even more myself. My interactions with both the members of the community and Carbon Tanzania team truly shaped my experience. I would like to recount a few stand out anecdotes to share some of the meaningful encounters that continue to occupy my mind:
- Moshi, one of the Hadza community leaders and a village game scout for the project, had been approached by some “Americans” to support them running an ultra-marathon during which they planned to survive with the same resources as the Hadza people would. When asked how the recce went, he said, “oh, yeah, those wazungu came to visit. Not really sure what they wanted but we ran really fast with them for one day, did the same the next, and they’ll be back sometime in the dry season to do it again”.
- The forest is not just a source of shelter, water and food for the Hadzabe, it’s also a type of church. They perform many sacred rituals both in thanksgiving and in sacrifice using the trees that are part of their cultural heritage. I made a mental note to remember to add that to the “why forests are important” infographic we created a couple of years ago!
- Even though I knew that the Hadzabe are a hunter gatherer tribe before I arrived, it properly sunk in when I noticed every single male over 15 had a bow and arrow permanently about his person, ready for use at any time. When, at one point, my 3-year-old son wandered slightly too close to Moshi’s arrows, they were quickly snatched away – some of the poisons used on them can kill a grown Kudu in seconds.
- Many of the community’s medicines are derived from the forest and each plant seems to have a particular use. However, I knew that they had also set up a health fund using carbon revenue, so I was curious to know when they would turn to ‘Western’ medicines. The people I spoke to were very clear that for diseases and ailments they didn’t recognise culturally, they went to the local clinics and hospitals, but where it was something they have been very effectively treating themselves for thousands of years, they continued to do so.
- Everyone I asked commented on the increase in wild animals in the bush in the project areas. It was extraordinary (but not surprising) to hear that an expert Hadza tracker, Bogayo, part of another field trip happening while I was out there, was able to identify and record animal tracks sitting on the front of the Land Cruiser driving at 20 km/hour. He shouted them out for those in the car to note down as part of a mapping exercise.
- For the Datooga tribe, their cows are everything and their culture is structured around them. Indeed, a large part of their satisfaction with the project’s land use plans and land rights decisions seems to be because their cows can now graze on excellent quality grass in the cool shade of forests when their pastures need resting and that this is protected for annual use.
- In the global north, we talk a lot about the importance of “preserving Indigenous knowledge”without, I think, fully understanding what it means. Here’s an example. A few years ago when the Yaeda Valley project won the Equator prize, Ezekiel, a now semi-retired Hadza leader, went out to New York to collect the prize with the Carbon Tanzania operations manager, David, who’s from there. On a break one day they went to the American Museum of Natural History and David snapped a picture of Ezekiel next to the T-Rex skeleton. On their return, they were showing the trip pictures to Moshi who stopped them at that picture. “But what is that Hadza doing with that giant bird?” he said, having never seen or heard of dinosaurs before. David, astounded, said: “Do you realise scientists took the best part of 100 years to make and prove that connection?” To which Moshi replied: “Well, they should have come to the Hadzabe to ask us, it’s obvious.”
- Gidamusungu is a finance officer for the project and a member of the Datooga tribe. One day, I was speaking to him about some of the trust deficits in the VCM at the moment and he immediately made the connection to his own work: “My tribe still doesn’t completely trust that the money they are receiving for protecting the forests is not going to result in a land ownership struggle. We have been burnt by bad actors in the past and it will take many years, and much more trust building work and good communications to reassure them that the work they are doing is inherently valuable and can be financially rewarded,” he said.
- I was struck by the matter of course way in which community members referred to their relationship with Carbon Tanzania, saying simply: “We entered into a partnership with Carbon Tanzania to enable us to receive funding to protect our forests”. It was very clear to me that the local communities viewed the relationship as an equal partnership that allowed them access to finance streams they had previously not been able to tap into. This had important knock-on effects for some of the development projects that were paid for using the carbon finance, such as for example, a shiny new set of public-use toilets in a village near the Eyasi lake. These toilet blocks, having been paid for by money fairly earned by the village for protecting natural resources, and chosen by the community over other potential projects, would be maintained proudly for years, unlike, as was pointed out to me by a manager, as is often the case when similar projects are built as a gift by well-meaning NGOs or CSR initiatives.
- When I mentioned the recent criticisms of REDD+ projects to people in the villages and forests they were absolutely flabbergasted that it was even a conversation point. It is so obvious to them that carbon finance – generated through the sale of carbon credits from the protection of forests -stops deforestation. They just could not get their heads around why people would doubt it! Throughout their lifetimes, many of these people have witnessed the devastation that subsistence and formal agriculture has had on the local forests upon which their livelihoods depend. But this is in sharp contrast to their more recent experiences. People have seen how, first the establishment of land rights, and second the funding secured through carbon credits, has transformed the fate of their forests. Upon hearing recent, global north critiques, the first reaction of many was to invite people to come and see the project for themselves – which, having just had that experience myself, I can’t recommend highly enough. Indeed, in talking more deeply those with a greater awareness of the global narrative, there is also a sense of unfairness surrounding the criticisms. Why should they be back in the historic pattern of the global north telling them when and how they can have access to finance? This is especially true when you consider that this finance is rewarding an environmental service they are delivering for the benefit of the entire planet.
Now, as I reflect on these memories and stories, I hold a renewed sense of passion and purpose for these projects as a highly effective way of financing conservation for the huge and clear benefit of local people, nature and the entire planet. Yes, there are other solutions to help us reach our climate and nature goals, and there are other ways of funding them, of course, but high-quality REDD+ carbon credits, such as these from the Yaeda-Eyasi Landscape project, bought and sold through the voluntary carbon market, offer a tangible, credible solution right now. We should be doing what we can to scale these solutions to keep our planet inhabitable for all.
Published first on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/partnerships-toilets-bows-arrows-reflections-my-visit-jen-stebbing