An Usambara Landscape Approach
by Judith Rosendahl .
September 2014. I found myself in the West Usambara Mountains in North-Eastern Tanzania, a region characterized by high population density, farming on steep mountain slopes, intensive vegetable production in the valley floors, and land degradation. I have started field work for a three year research project on sustainable land management- AGORA: Acting Together Now for Pro-Poor Strategies against Soil and Land Degradation. It is fascinating learning to “read” the landscape to identify remnants of past interventions of agricultural development.
Over a 20 years period (from approximately 1980- 2000), two massive development projects by the GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit) and the SNV (Netherlands Development Organization) have promoted sustainable land use and soil conservation in the region. These projects encouraged typical techniques of sustainable land management such as the construction of terraces, the planting of trees, zero grazing, the use of grass strips, and irrigation methods. Today, the achievements of these ambitious projects are fading in most parts of the region, due to population growth, and the resulting pressure on natural resources. Livelihoods, as well as the sustainable use of resources are again at risk. Can a small participatory research project make a difference? So here we are, an interdisciplinary team from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the Tanzanian governmental SELIAN Agricultural Research Institute, and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), trying to understand the problem in all its complexity and linkages (call it a landscape approach or whatever you like). Some of us will focus on biophysical aspects, others on socio-economic aspects. The work of the IASS centers mainly on understanding and integrating stakeholders. The problems are daunting: high population growth (about 4% compared to the national average of 2.1%) and the highest densities of people in all of Tanzania, land scarcity, poverty, environmental change including climate change, lack of access to information and markets, corruption, land and forest degradation (70% of the original forest cover of the West and East Usambaras has been lost) – the woeful song too commonly sung by those in rural development. Has a small three year research project any chance to develop pro-poor strategies to deal with soil and land degradation?
Harmful research practice? A small research project can obviously achieve what neither the local government, nor well-funded development projects over decades could not: the transformation of the Usambara Mountains into a paradise of sustainable land management. Researchers and funders alike have to concede that buzzwords like transdisciplinarity and participation are not necessarily low hanging fruit. More modest research proposals with appropriate terminology and design would help in this regard. During a series of stakeholder interviews, many of those interviewed expressed their discouragement with former research and development interventions. Information was extracted, but was not returned in the form of feedback to the local population.
Despite the limitations of such a project, it is nevertheless worthwhile to face the complexity of land issues. The only way forward is to involve local people in the process. The options for improving land and agriculture-based livelihoods must be aired at the grassroots level. It is the old story of participation: a great deal of value lies in the process itself. Both researchers and local people can gain new perspectives and insights. At best, the process assists people to empower themselves. It will be exciting to watch the unfolding and integration of biophysical, economic, and social knowledge in this project, and how it is put to use.