By Dana Baker, PhD Candidate in Marine Science and Conservation

Image 1: Often interviews are conducted wherever we can find a quiet spot and a cool breeze. Here is an example of one of my interview locations in a migrant fishing village located inside MBREMP, Mtwara, Tanzania.

I switch off my recorder and quickly gather my interview materials strewn across the table: a colorful guide to the region’s common fish species, several laminated maps of the marine park, and a diagram illustrating the various dimensions of human wellbeing. The afternoon is sticky and hot and we’re working at a research site further from town than usual. We ditched our car on the main road earlier that morning and hired two dirt bikes to take us the last 10 kilometers to the village center, located in one of the largest remaining tracts of mangroves in East Africa. Over the past 5 years, the villagers have created a niche by capturing, fattening, and selling mud crabs on the international market and I wanted to understand how they make this happen. The young fisher we just spoke to hesitates in the doorway, “Can you tell us when this pandemic will end? People here… We need to sell our crabs, or our families will die.”  I sit back down and switch the recorder on. We talk for several more hours about the impact that COVID-19 is having on his mud crab business. The date was March 15th, the day before Tanzania announced its first positive COVID-19 case.

Today, working from my home office 4 months after an emergency flight back from Tanzania, this interview continues to resonate deeply. Over the past year, I’ve conducted over 140 interviews with small-scale fishers living in and around Mnazi Bay-Ruvuma Estuary Marine Park. Mtwara, where the marine protected area (MPA) is located, is often described as Tanzania’s last frontier– it’s remote, breathtaking, often violent, and far removed from any large urban center. My dissertation research is examining how conservation programming, like an MPA, can change human wellbeing and one’s relationship with their environment. Often MPA implementation is opportunistically framed as a “win-win” for both marine biodiversity and for coastal populations. Yet, the social outcomes of many MPAs remain the subject of widespread critique and human rights abuse allegations. Unfortunately, this situation is likely to be compounded by the global pandemic.

Image 2: Early morning at the main fish market in Mtwara, Tanzania. Most fish and crabs are sold to middlemen that transport the catch on motorbike to this central market in Mtwara.

At first glance, with only 509 officially confirmed cases and 21 deaths, it may seem that Tanzania escaped the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic[1]. Yet, the impact on Tanzanian communities goes far beyond the imminent public health emergency and throws global inequality into sharp relief. Tanzania is one of the poorest nations in the world, where roughly 50% of its population live on less than 1.90 per day[2]. As such, there are very few households that have any economic buffer, or safety-net, to ride out COVID-19. The pandemic is also causing supply chains to fragment due to restrictions on the movement of people and goods. For example, prior to Tanzanian borders closing, the mud crab fishers could not export to China due to lockdowns within the country and the subsequent decrease in demand for crab. Disruptions to the supply chain coupled with the rising cost of staple foods, like corn and sugar[3], will push many Tanzanians, including the mud crab fishers, far deeper into poverty.

Image 3: Low tide in the mangroves. Most fishers in MBREMP have just one small canoe, which is typically passed down through the generations. Most fish every day to meet their daily household needs.

The pandemic will also have a cascade of immediate and long-term impacts on protected and conserved areas across the country. Tanzania has over 40% of its terrestrial and marine environments[4] under protection and tourism accounts for nearly 20% of the country’s GDP[5]. Many conservation programs gain local level support by promising rural communities’ tourism revenue and development programs in exchange for participation and program implementation. The mud crab fishers were trained and their business established in exchange for participating in the MPA’s ‘mangrove tourism’ plan, that has not fully materialized. Yet, what happens when tourism comes to a dead halt, or when development projects fail to maintain basic household income? In Mtwara, the single dive shop and hotel sent all but one employee home mid-April. They have not had a guest since. For many Tanzanian’s, they will find creative ways to meet their daily, subsistent needs. For example, the mud crab fishers may turn to selling mangrove poles– a lucrative alternative income source, but one that is also strictly protected by the central government. This context will increase conflict between local communities and conservation officials, as well as decrease the support for and effectiveness of conservation and protected area programs.

Originally, I applied to Duke’s Human Rights Center Summer Research Grant to fund a 3-week return trip to Mtwara. I intended to share initial findings and results directly with stakeholders for feedback and result validation. While this next stage of research is on hold, the pandemic has given me time to think deeply about the practice of conservation and how best to reconcile conservation goals with the needs of the human community

[1] The Tanzanian government has not released aggregate numbers on COVID-19 cases since April 29, 2020: https://tz.usembassy.gov/covid-19-information/. On June 8, 2020 the president, John Magufuli declared Tanzania free from COVID-19: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52966016.

[2] According to the 2019 U.N. Human Development Report, which ranks countries based on a common set of human development indicators, Tanzania ranks 159/189 countries. See country profile here: http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/TZA

[3] The World Food Program estimates that 2.1 million Tanzanian’s may need food assistance as a result of the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. See for more information: https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000116172/download/?_ga=2.168333601.1215637616.1595605266-1479557144.1595605266; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36330216

[4] See the World Database on Protected Areas here:   https://www.protectedplanet.net/country/TZ

[5] Tourism in Tanzania accounted for over US $2 billion in revenue in 2018: https://allafrica.com/stories/201909300326.html#:~:text=For%20years%2C%20Tourism%20has%20accounted,6%20trillion).