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

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

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

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