Elephants and Sesame
There is an old adage among Marxists that the one thing worse than being exploited by capital is not being exploited by it at all. Capital may extract profit from surplus labour, but it is worse still for the labourer to have no one to sell their labour to. At least with the former the worker receives a wage and a meeting place to organise and build solidarity. Without the job, the labourer has nothing.
A similar situation may exist with respect to the Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) which are proliferating throughout Tanzania. Criticisms of these arrangements abound. Claims are for example that they take up too much land, that they are impossible to leave, that they do not come with adequate compensation, and that the compensation is not fairly shared within or between the villages collaborating. Some also criticise that WMAs are extensions of neoliberal conservation which deepen the very problems that drive environmental degradation. I myself have been vocal in my concerns as an author and as an editor of Conservation and Society, in which many of these critiques are published.
However, the field experience during the last week in Kilwa District suggests that, if there is one thing worse than being part of a WMA, it is being excluded from its benefits. The most recent trip with the NEPSUS project entailed focus group discussions and key informant interviews in Kandawale and Ngarambi villages in Kilwa district, Lindi region. These are remote places which require long drives over poor roads and where communication ceases in the wet season as the roads get blocked by flooded rivers.
These villages are part of the Mbomaminjika WMA, consisting of land owned by a collective of 9 villages. This WMA is somehow different from the others because its process of establishment has stopped before it could become fully operational. All the committees are in place, and village game scouts have been trained and go on patrol. There are land use plans as well as a large area of village-owned wildlife habitat ready for a suitable company to take over for tourist hunting. But the crucial final steps that would enable a company to set up shop and would also allow for wildlife to be hunted for local consumption have not been taken. As a result, the land remains unused and the villagers are prevented from benefiting from their proximity to the Selous Game Reserve and all its wildlife resources.
This is disturbing for everyone we spoke to during our field research. Villagers have seen their neighbours (in Ngalambe village in Rufiji District) share legally-hunted wild meat for local consumption, and benefit from the presence of tourist hunting and its revenues. It is galling because the villages in Mbomaminjika have done so much work and given up such a large area. It is even more frustrating that the wild animals are causing serious problems of crop damage – and this arises in particular from elephants. It seems that in the last 2-3 years there has been an upsurge in elephant population in the area. When the village game scouts began their patrols 10 years ago, poaching presented a threat to the species. Poaching was particularly troublesome in Ngarambi, which is the closest village to the Selous Game Reserve. It is the village which suffers most from elephants drinking from its water points every night and leaving dung close to them, as Ruth John’s blog describes. However, the practice of poaching has now subsided and the elephant population has rebounded.
The dilemma of Mbomaminjika is particularly sad because elephant damage is stalling an incipient development path that these villages were hoping to benefit from. They have been doing rather well due to the sesame seed cultivation and trade. The sesame seed business has been resurgent in several parts of Tanzania and is bringing considerable benefits, in part because of higher commodity prices and also because of new marketing arrangements. During interviews, people explained that as a result of their sesame seed sales, they were able to build better houses and buy motorbikes. Five out of 10 elders in the focus group in Ngarambi village had recently bought motorbikes. Sesame has the advantage of being relatively protected from wildlife damage because it is not eaten by elephants, only by baboons, monkeys and rodents. It still can be destroyed through trampling, but it is not as likely to be eaten by animals as maize and millet.
Hence, despite the malfunctioning WMA, some villagers have been able to improve their lives, and village economies are growing. However, particularly in Ngarambi, this has become harder in the last 2-3 years because people have been losing their food crops to elephants. This happened to 17 of 18 people in the focus groups and every single key informant in Ngarambi, thus decreasing the net contribution to higher incomes coming from sesame sales.
Another old adage in social science is ‘Do not let the perfect become the enemy of the good’. Put in other words, critical scientists will find a lot of things problematic when researching new arrangements of capitalist conservation, including questionable colonial hunting practices. Hence, a functioning WMA is not at all perfect. Still, is it an entirely bad thing? Is it worse than no WMA at all? Should our models of perfect natural resource management mean that we cannot countenance alternative models which might not be perfect, but could just be good enough for the time being?
Were the WMA to start functioning, this would doubtlessly lead to the emergence of problems that we have observed elsewhere. But it would also mean that farmers who until now have experienced only trouble with wildlife, would begin to see some benefits. Who knows, it might even make the elephants more circumspect with regard to depredations.
This is the water point in the village. Elephant footprints from the night before can be seen next to it. As indicated by Ruth.
In his blog entry, @danbrockington tells the story of how a malfunctioning Wildlife Management Area causes a dilemma for development in Mbomaminijika, Tanzania. The local community must experience more benefits from conservation.