When environmental issues are discussed in the media, the term ‘conservation’ is often included as part of the solution, with respect to organisations such as UNESCO and the World Heritage Convention (WHC). After long disputes about land use and sustainability, both sides often settle for the establishment of a World Heritage Site or Conservation area. While this will bring many benefits, it often fails to engage with the local nomadic and indigenous people of an area and leaves their views unrepresented.
In the summer of 2015 I was part of a geological expedition team who travelled to Northwest Tanzania to study the unique and unusual lavas of the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano. As the sole geographer on the team, I conducted several interviews with members of the local Maasai community. Through hearing about their lifestyle, I soon realised that we need to move beyond the blanket term of conservation to consider the wider interconnections of the people, wildlife and landscapes we are trying to protect.
In early June, a team of fifteen of us from the University of Glasgow Earth Sciences Department arrived in Tanzania. Several days of travel on tarmacked roads and dirt tracks took us in a diagonal line across the country and finally, after four hours rickety driving across the savannah, we reached our destination: the village of Engare Sero. This remote Maasai village exists in the shadow of the active Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano. The last major eruption was in 2008 and had a lasting impact on the surrounding landscape.
With the help of our guide, I managed to speak to seven local Maasai people and six Tanzanians from other areas of the country about their experiences and perceptions of the threat of the active volcano and what positive and negative impacts it brought.
The first thing local people spoke about was their experience of the 2008 eruption. The ash that fell over the course of eight days killed many of the cattle that were being grazed by the locals. Any that survived would have very little to eat as the trees and grass in the area were also buried in thick layers of volcanic rock. Surviving animals contracted diseases so were not able to be used, even after the eruption had stopped. People too developed health issues, the locals told me, and exhibited severe fevers during and following the eruption. In the longer timescale, the acidic chemicals from the volcano leached into the watercourses, severely polluting the locals’ water supply.
Surprisingly when asked about how they perceived this threat, the local Maasai told me they felt no fear. They are very religious and place the values of God in nature. To them an eruption is a sign that they have made mistakes so they simply respond by praying for forgiveness and using cattle as a sacrifice. As well as this, they have learned to adapt. As soon as the early warning signs of fire in the crater appear, the locals take their cattle and leave the area via herders’ tracks that lead to nearby valleys, far from the threat of falling ash. As soon as the eruption has subsided and rains have washed away the ash, they will return. Some people take a much stronger religious view and don’t move away. They told me that if they believe their God means for them to die, they can accept that.
It was clear that the Maasai were able to live in harmony with a natural hazard that would generate mass panic in any Western culture. Despite constant threat of future eruptions, they were able to live a sustainable life, with full knowledge of what to do next time they saw the first signs of fire in the crater.
Despite the peaceful lifestyle led by the Maasia, there is ongoing intervention from governments and organisations that could change this. For the last two years the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) have been endeavouring to turn the area surrounding the Engare Sero village into a government-owned conservation area. The edge of the current Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) lies just to the northwest of the village and there is much controversy over the possibility of extending it to encompass the village too, which could result in the Maasai people being evicted from their homes. What little income they can make is through tourism and this would almost certainly be lost to the government if these plans were to go ahead. The locals told me that the NCAA argue that they are damaging the environment through cutting down trees and hunting animals. Where they see this as their sustainable way of life, the NCAA and government sees it as a threat to the natural beauty of the area.
To try and get people to leave, I was told members of the Tanzanian government had argued that it was too dangerous to live in the vicinity of the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano for fear of future eruptions. This greatly contrasted with the idea I had built up of the Maasai people’s way of life over the few weeks I had spent with them. It was clear that there is a severe lack of communication between the local people and the organisations that, from a Westerner’s perspective, are set up to support them and their landscape. I have since discovered that there are no senior positions held within the NCAA by Maasai people.
I left Tanzania pondering, not whether this development should go ahead, but the way in which the local Tanzanians’ views were represented in decisions that would drastically affect their ways of life.
The NCA is a World Heritage Site, owned by UNESCO, yet it is described by them on their website (whc.unesco.org) as a “multiple land use area with wildlife coexisting with semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists”. Whilst this is UNESCO’s desired situation, this description clearly does not reflect the actions of NCA workers in Tanzania.
Perhaps to be able to truly consider ourselves global citizens, we must not simply accept blanket terms such as ‘conservation’. We need to look closer to see the ways in which the interactions between local people, wildlife and the environment are being dealt with on site to allow the local people’s views to be represented as clearly and fairly as possible. Only then can regulations be established that are fair and sustainable for the people as well as the landscape.