Protecting Tanzania’s mangroves

Why the current conservation scheme is falling short, and alternative approaches to strengthen it
As countries ponder how to encourage mangrove conservation, the role of people, rights, and governance institutions should receive equal consideration. Photo by: Jean-Marc Liotier/CIFOR

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Lush mangrove forests line the meandering channels of the Rufiji River Delta, south of the commercial capital Dar es Salaam on the east coast of Tanzania.

It’s one of the largest mangrove areas in Africa, and like mangroves everywhere, they’re under threat. Mangrove trunks are being cut for timber, poles and burned for charcoal; meanwhile, trees are being cleared to make way for rice paddies.

Tanzanian law strictly protects mangroves given that they are the property of the State. Though the government initially encouraged people to settle in the Delta in the early 1970s, strict protection means local women aren’t supposed to collect firewood from the forest (though they often do) and every December through January since the 1990s, agents from the Tanzanian Forest Service (TFS) have burned farmers’ temporary stilt huts (madungu) and new rice farms, in an attempt to discourage further deforestation.

But this conservation model isn’t optimal, say scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR.)

Rufiji’s population is growing. Locals increasingly rely on mangrove products for their livelihoods, and allow outsiders to come in and illegally harvest timber and charcoal to sell in the capital. Massive flooding in the 1990s changed the river’s course, expanding the area suitable for rice farming – while immigration into the delta has simultaneously increased demand for agricultural land.

“The threats are increasing and the government alone cannot deal with all these threats,” says CIFOR’s Baruani Mshale. Even if the enforcement budget was vastly improved, it would still be a battle, he says.

“People will always come up with creative ways on how they can access and use the mangroves, regardless of how much protection the government imposes.”


But that doesn’t mean the mangroves are doomed.

The solution, says Mshale, is to give locals a reason to defend them from outsiders and manage them sustainably. This can be done by granting communities more rights and responsibilities, and involving them in the protection and rehabilitation of the forests while ensuring that they generate livelihood benefits from doing so.

The Tanzanian government has begun to acknowledge that strict protection doesn’t work, and experiments are currently unfolding in the Rufiji River Delta.

Three different models of community engagement are being trialled – with varying degrees of success. Mshale is the lead author of a new report for USAID conducted by researchers from CIFOR and the University of Dar es Salaam that compares and analyses these approaches.


The first is a system of individual farming permits between villagers and TFS.

Farmers apply for renewable one-year licenses allowing them to continue farming rice in exchange for facilitating the natural regeneration of mangrove trees on their plots. Once the trees reach a certain height, their shade renders rice paddies less productive, and farmers must move elsewhere to repeat the process.

This scheme has not been a success, says Mshale. It is one-sided – imposing a lot of conservation responsibility on farmers in exchange for few rewards. It also creates insecurity.

“People know that once the mangroves regrow, they’ll be kicked out,” he says – so there is a perverse incentive for farmers to intentionally prevent mangrove recovery.

The written contracts have also been problematic.

“Many people in the delta are illiterate, and they fear anything that is signed. They felt like they are getting tricked – perhaps there is something written there that they do not understand, and they’ll be made to pay fines later.”

After so many years of harsh policies, the people don’t always trust the government’s intentions. Unsurprisingly, many communities refused to sign these contracts.


Group rehabilitation of mangroves is another approach that is being pioneered in the Rufiji River Delta, with the support of the UNDP and UNEP.

Local collectives of 15-30 men and women are assigned areas of mangrove forest to restore, and are paid for each day they spend replanting or weeding.

Communities initially embraced the project, but Mshale says some villagers complained to his team about favouritism, saying they felt excluded from the scheme – even though TFS says it would be expanded to ensure benefits are shared.

More importantly, the program doesn’t give people a sense of ownership over the forest.

“These people are providing casual labour, but they don’t have any other rights over the areas that they are replanting. So the moment you stop paying them, they won’t be able to come and work for you.”

What’s more, its future is uncertain because the program relies heavily upon financial support from UNEP and UNDP. Once the funds dry up, it won’t be able to be sustained, says Mshale.


The most promising approach, according to CIFOR research, is the Joint Forest Management scheme currently being trialled in the delta as part of the Tanzanian participatory forest management program.

In four Rufiji villages, TFS has negotiated with individual communities to draw up plans for sharing the costs and benefits of managing the mangrove forest. Though the state retains ultimate ownership of the mangroves, this is the only scheme that transfers some decision-making power to local people – and that means it’s the one most likely to succeed compared to the others, says Mshale.

So far, the communities have embraced it.

“It’s in its infancy, so they have not seen any benefits yet – but they are very hopeful” – and TFS is committed to making it work, says Mshale.

“They’re not old-school forestry technocrats who view local people as a threat to conservation – they see that they can work with the communities and achieve conservation goals. They realise that strict protection alone is not going to work.”


“What’s needed now is proper management and making sure that the benefits and costs are equitably and fairly distributed among community members.”

In particular, that means ensuring women’s meaningful participation in decision-making in a culture where women traditionally are meant to defer to men and tend to stay silent during group meetings.

That could mean providing a space for women to meet alone to debate ideas among themselves, before bringing their concerns to the broader community.

Women often spend more time in the mangroves than men, and have detailed knowledge about their biology and uses, says Mshale.

“Women need to benefit from the schemes that are being implemented, and have their voices and concerns taken into account – without being dominated and bullied by men.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Baruani Mshale at or Esther Mwangi at
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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands Peatlands Community forestry Wetlands Rights