I have been asked to reflect on my experience in Tanzania, but it is proving to be difficult. You can see all the pictures, read all the books, and hear all the stories about poverty in developing countries – but nothing can compare to experiencing it firsthand. Despite being back in the United States, I feel like I am still there. Rather than seeing what is around me and falling back into my daily life, I can’t shake Tanzania from my mind.
I spent a little over two weeks in Tanzania conducting field research for my Senior Honors Project. I worked with Dr. Emi Uchida and Ph.D. Candidate Cathy McNally to study the relationship between mangrove ecosystem services and poverty traps. In short, we want to see if there are any ecosystem services from mangroves that could contribute to poverty alleviation. Mangrove habitats provide essential services to surrounding communities – including protection from erosion, flooding and storm surge, access to raw materials, carbon sequestration, and nursery habitat for many species of marine life. We specifically visited rural coastal villages that are the most vulnerable to coastal flooding and storm surge – in hopes of targeting the communities that have to deal with these shocks the most often.
Poor and vulnerable populations tend to rely disproportionately on natural resources to fuel their livelihood, as they lack access to other market goods and services. If their village is struck by a hurricane, for example, then they risk losing access to their surrounding damaged resources, as well as most of their assets. We want to understand the sources of risk that poor and vulnerable populations face and the ways in which they mitigate these risks. Without access to adequate risk management techniques, these populations tend to be more exposed to exogenous shocks and are exposed to the mechanisms that cause poverty traps to persist. As a result, they continue to remain in poverty indefinitely. If specific mangrove ecosystem services are found to directly contribute to the reduction of poverty traps, economic development and mangrove restoration efforts can both be improved.
As we began our visits to the first few villages, I could clearly see the environmental degradation we were studying. Since all of the villages were coastal, the villagers relied heavily on fishing and shrimping. Yet, it seemed as though these marine populations were quite depleted. Despite spending an entire morning shrimping, some fishermen would only catch a handful of shrimp. On the beaches, we also observed fishermen using illegal nets that had very small holes. They would drag them along the bottom of the sea bed and pick up anything and everything. As a result, they would rip out sea grass, fish eggs, and juvenile populations of marine life. With such low fish and shrimp populations, they had no choice but to use these nets and get whatever sort of harvest they could.
Coastal erosion, evidence of flooding, and mangrove degradation were also present. Even though mangroves are protected, we could see boats and houses made out of mangrove wood. Many communities also suffered from salt inundation in their public wells – causing them to lose access to fresh water. Every ounce of their lives depended on their surrounding natural resources – and they were slowly losing that access. These communities have to resort to illegal activities in order to survive, and you can’t really blame them. There are no other feasible options. After visiting the first couple communities, the severity and complexity of the problems these individuals were facing began to set in.
Some of the villages were located within the boundaries of SANAPA National Park. Despite the importance of the Park making an effort to set aside reserved land and conserve resources, the local populations didn’t always seem to benefit. With wild animal populations increasing, farmers’ crops would get trampled or destroyed more often. Furthermore, living within park boundaries limits these communities’ abilities to access their surrounding resources. Without the ability to utilize their environment, they can sometimes be forced to illegally poach or cut down mangroves causing further environmental degradation and unsustainable sources of livelihood. Although SANAPA provided positive benefits to the communities, such as clean water and more localized healthcare, it became clear that there were deeper complexities in the connection between these two parties.
Overall, the relationship between those in poverty and their environment was quite evident throughout our visit. They rely on the ocean for fishing and shrimping, on the surrounding habitat for hunting, as well as the nearby mangroves and coconut trees. Without these resources, they wouldn’t be able to survive. Studying this relationship became more important to me than ever. With everything I have learned in the classroom, I was confident that there are ways in which poverty alleviation and environmental restoration efforts can be improved.
Taking a step back from the surrounding environment, I began to observe the people. No matter where we traveled, we were always welcomed with open arms. I saw such strength, kindness and an amazing sense of community throughout these villages. Even though the village members didn’t always know who we were or why we were there, they were always so generous and respectful. It was refreshing to experience a culture where acceptance and generosity are the rule, not the exception.
And then there were the kids. In every village we visited, there were so many children. They would always come running up to our vehicle, mesmerized by the newcomers to their village. We must have interacted with well over 50 kids over the course of those two weeks – but one little girl struck a chord with me. The first time I made eye contact with her, she ran up and gave me a huge hug. Nobody else had so effortlessly accepted me. With my limited Swahili, and her inability to speak English, we mainly communicated non-verbally – but there was this deeper understanding between us. I could see how she saw the world, because I used to have that same glow in my eyes. She didn’t see the negativity – she only saw the good. All day I had been reviewing survey data and I knew I had hours left of work to do, but something about that innocence pushed me to put down my pen and spend a few hours with her. And I was so glad I did. She took my hand and I followed her wherever she wanted to go. We ran in circles, danced, played hand games and sang songs. She stayed right by my side. When I looked at her, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I used to have that same look – and how I would do anything to make sure she maintained that innocence. I never wanted her to see the bad in the world. At this point in the trip I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the immensity of the problems these communities were facing. I understood why they were so hard to solve and have persisted for so long, and I began to wonder if I would ever be able to make positive change. Fatuma changed that. When I looked at her, I knew I was in the right place.
Back in the States, I found the research fascinating and was really interested in constructing the survey instruments. I knew I loved numbers and would like analyzing all of the data. But it was that afternoon that my future was confirmed – I knew I was in the right place. I knew I would do anything to fight for a better world for kids like Fatuma. I accepted that there are going to be a lot of obstacles and a lot of failure when trying to improve these issues – but at the end of the day, it’s pretty simple. Everyone deserves access to basic rights, like adequate nutrition, clean water, clean air, health care and education. But everyone also deserves the right to reach their full potential. Everyone deserves a chance to see the world as a place of endless possibilities, as a place where they can reach whatever goal they want. And I may not have all of the answers now, but someday I’ll find out how I can make my mark on the world. I may not change Fatuma’s life – but I know she changed my mine. I can only hope that someday I’ll be able to help others like her.
by Sarah Martin ’14
Environmental and Natural Resource Economics Major
April 28th, 2014