Keeper of the plains and the forests

August 29, 2003

Wachira Kigotho reports on an environmental advocacy programme that is making an impact in Tanzania.

Tanzania's rich biodiversity is threatened by logging of rare hardwoods, charcoal burning on the savannah and farming on its mountainous hillsides. More than 7,500 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and plants are at risk.

The University of Dar-es-Salaam has launched the Joint Environment and Development Management Action (Jema) as an environmental advocacy programme for academic staff, graduates and students. In Kiswahili, the organisation's acronym literally means "good".

Jema was established seven years ago to create awareness of conservation issues and to take protective measures for threatened species. Its team of volunteers has established partnerships with a range of international conservation organisations, including the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Food Programme, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, Eco News Africa and local environmental protection groups.

Specifically, Jema has formed links with local communities in a bid to reach target groups in areas where the environment has been greatly affected. "The main focus is to create environmental protection awareness at grassroots levels," says university vice-chancellor Matthew Luhanga, who is Jema's patron.

Jema operates five programmes simultaneously, and currently the focus is on environmental rehabilitation, biodiversity conservation, outreach services on environmental management and protection, poverty alleviation initiatives and HIV/Aids awareness-raising at the university and its surrounding areas.

About 500,000 million hectares of forest and scrubland are cleared annually to make way for agriculture and pastoral activities. Overgrazing and poor agricultural practices have led to low yields, and the land is turning to dust bowls, especially on the savannah.

Jema activists are working with pastoral communities, especially among the Masai nomads whose livelihood is strictly dependent on livestock. One aim is to encourage the Masai to keep fewer cattle to avoid overgrazing and encroaching on protected game reserves.

Last year, Jema opened another outreach project near Mount Kilimanjaro where farmers have been encroaching on the fragile montane ecosystem.

"Deforestation and bush fires on the mountain hillsides contributed to the melting of Kilimanjaro's ice cap," says Davis Mwamfupe, a senior lecturer and head of geography department at the university. Data from the ministry of natural resources show that about 20,000 hectares of natural forests on Mount Kilimanjaro were destroyed by fire in the past seven years.

Jema is also in the process of conducting a limited biodiversity inventory in the montane forests. So far, more than 2,000 species of plants have been classified.

The organisation's volunteers, most of them students, have been working with fishermen to combat marine habitat destruction and poor conservation practices. Along the Indian Ocean coast of Tanzania, Jema is engaged in the protection of dugongs - rare relatives of the manatee - that are in danger of extinction. Once thought to be mermaids by the local fishermen, dugongs are approaching the danger point, with extinction threatened from fishing-net entanglement and destruction of their habitat. Jema is working closely with the World Wide Fund for Nature and The Mafia Island Turtle and Dugong Conservation Programme on ways to protect the dugong and the giant African turtle.

In addition to the high-profile conservation programmes, Jema volunteers have been creating HIV/Aids awareness among high-risk communities in the country. Small teams of students have been working in fishing villages in Mwanza, educating fishermen on safe-sex practices. Others have been working with commercial sex workers in Dar-es-Salaam.

Through the voluntary outreach services, Jema has been able to encourage local groups to seek alternative sources of energy. The organisation is at the forefront of teaching farmers organic farming techniques.

Graduates and students interested in joining Jema's outreach services programme undertake an orientation course that covers management of land, wildlife, forest and water resources and human settlements.

Apart from addressing local conservation issues, students can earn credits in their courses or accomplish specific research under the supervision of lecturers.

"Jema has opened research opportunities to our students and has started to attract foreign students and graduates interested in multidisciplinary research," Luhanga says.

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