Director's Blog

When People Matter

People must be central to our conservation work in Africa.

"Our mission success will be determined by how well these people can plan their own future and sustainably manage the lands and waters they depend upon." —David Banks, Africa Director

By David Banks

I’m sitting on another hard bench under another neem tree, partially shielded from the familiar African sun. Sweat trickles down my ribs, and I nod with fatigue. I feel as though this is some bizarre dream, but here I am talking to health-care providers.

It feels almost painful awaking to this realization. The feeling is even more acute knowing what lies just around a few sand-bordered coves of Lake Tanganyika. There stands virgin rainforest with chimps, birds and other thrilling life.

Tanzania: Showing Vs. Caring

But sometimes you have to show that you care. On this visit, we have a team of Conservancy scientists working with a group of health specialists from Pathfinder International. Our job: determine if together we can pull off a project that will protect the incredible natural diversity of this area, as well as improve human health in surrounding communities, educate people about family planning and provide access to modern contraceptives.

But after a few days of meeting with people in these communities, I realize it’s not about showing that I care.

I hear stories of women giving birth to 10 or 12 children — and losing many of them. I understand the rapid growth of these villages, and I see the impacts on fish and surrounding forests. After a few days, I truly do care.

All that life we also care about just around the next cove is dependent on addressing not only reproductive health issues in villages, but also these communities' overall health and well-being. Our mission success will be determined by how well these people can plan their own future and sustainably manage the lands and waters they depend upon.

The Greater Mahale Ecosystem and Lake Tanganyika remain in relatively good shape. One of the Africa Program’s principles is to focus on places where we still have good prospects for success. To find a place that demonstrates what we want to avoid here around Lake Tanganyika, I don’t have to stray very far.

Ethiopia: Human Wake-Up Call

After our trip to Mahale, I head off on a holiday to visit northern Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s population in 1935 was 15 million, and it has now grown to nearly 80 million. Massive efforts to address this population issue led to a rapid decline in birth rates, yet within 40 years, the population is still expected to hit 150 million. By 2023, Ethiopia will have more people than Russia.

The effects are stunning. People crowd onto roads, and outside of expanding villages, every square meter of arable or even semi-arable land is farmed. You simply can’t escape humanity in Ethiopia.

Even in Simien National Park — home to some of the world’s most endangered and endemic species such as the walia ibex, gelada baboon and Ethiopian wolf — people are farming and letting livestock overgraze. This is a depressing sight, especially on the heels of my trip to Mahale.

It’s also a wake-up call for me. Population pressures are intense around the world, but nowhere more so than in Africa. Western Tanzania, where Lake Tanganyika and Mahale lie, has some of the highest fertility rates in Africa. It doesn’t take long to reach a situation like Ethiopia where, standing by a swarming street, you toss up your arms and say it’s too late. Game over.

The People of Mahale

There are still no roads around the Mahale Mountains. To travel between villages, you take a boat.

In three days, we visit five different communities. Every time the bow of our boat pushes away from shore, I look back at 10, 20, sometimes 40 smiling, waving children. Those faces represent both the future of this place and the answer to how we can achieve our mission.

It’s time to embrace the people.


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