Best Intentions: The Story of Tanzania's People's Park

Best laid plans went awry when 'the people' were protected but not heard

| February 10, 2005

The Mafia Island Marine Park in Tanzania was to be a conservation endeavor worthy of worldwide emulation. Funded by international organizations -- whose role was expected to minimize government corruption -- this 'people's park' would balance conservation with development. Tanzanians would, for the first time, be granted full legal rights to live in the park and ecotourism would give their economy and lifestyles a boost. But the heart of the concept proved elusive, largely because 'the people' were deemed worthy of protection but not participation.

Christine J. Walley, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was an anthropological field researcher in the mid-1990s on Chloe, one of the islands that form the Mafia archipelago along East Africa's coast. As she recalls in the Boston Review, it was the practice of dynamite fishing that led to the park's downfall.

Dynamite fishing involves throwing a stick of dynamite in the water and then scooping up a flood of dead fish. As the fishermen on Chloe told Walley, it's a scorned and destructive practice that harms the coral reefs (known on Mafia as the nyumba ya samaki, or 'home of the fish'). It's also a practice unbefitting a marine reserve.

Island residents blamed unscrupulous fishermen from Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam, but the government pointed park organizers toward the island residents who, because they are uneducated and poor, could be stereotyped as environmentally ignorant.

A long series of events ensued. At one point, a well-meaning representative from an independent environmental organization defied government regulations and went directly to residents to discuss the issues. He resigned after being chastised for ruffling feathers.

Despite requests to have their waters policed for dynamite fishing, the people living on Mafia were branded as perpetrators. They lost basic fishing rights, which eliminated their primary source of food and income, and the 'people's park' became a place of destitution.
-- Hannah Lobel