The Kesho Trust

Sirima, 2015 – Abstract

The contribution of indigenous ecological knowledge in conservation of Enguserosambu Community Forest, Tanzania

Community managed forests constitute a significant proportion of the world’s forests, however, little is known regarding their condition or the details of how they are managed. Although some community based forests do not satisfy the IUCN definition of a protected area, they provide valuable long term sustainability of forest products and many are also rich in biodiversity and support landscape conservation strategies. Documented benefits of community managed forests include poverty alleviation and in some place a decrease in the rate of deforestation. Forests are also home to many cultures including indigenous people. Indigenous peoples are the holders of unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs, and possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources. They have a special relation to and use of their traditional land, hence the traditional/indigenous knowledge.

Indigenous communities surrounding forest areas and other protected areas have developed patterns of resource use and management that reflect their intimate knowledge of local environments and ecosystems. However, indigenous knowledge is rarely documented or incorporated into science based or government run conservation planning. This project’s aim was to examine the contribution of indigenous ecological knowledge in the conservation of Enguserosambu Community Forest and surrounding rangelands. Specifically, the research aimed to understand social mechanisms supporting indigenous ecological knowledge generation, accumulation and transmission; to examine the role of local indigenous institutions in supporting conservation of Enguserosambu Community Forest; and to assess if time-series aerial imagery supports historical forest management practices shared as oral histories about land-use change by the communities.


Participants for the research were selected based on their knowledge of the forest and surrounding rangelands, their involvement with local and indigenous institutions or their membership in forest user groups in the area. Four villages were surveyed: Ng’arwa, Enguserosambu, Orkiu-Juu and Naan. Individual and group semi-structured interviews were conducted with customary elders, village leaders, forest user groups, NGO’s, and forest officers.   A total of 57 individuals were interviewed, of which 19 were females. Interview sessions lasted between 30 minutes and 2 hours. Interviews were conducted in either Swahili or Maa language. In case of the latter, a translator was used during the interview process. Field notes also were recorded each time the researcher visited the villages. Thematic analysis was carried out for qualitative information using NVivo 10. To compare oral history with land cover change, satellite images with 30 meter spatial resolution were acquired from Landsat 7 and 8 for land cover change analysis. Satellite Imagery from February 2000 and February 2015 were selected for analysis. ArcGIS 10.2 was used to analyze satellite images for forest cover change.


Findings related to the community connection with the forest, demonstrate that for the Enguserosambu community, culture and forest are seen as one entity. The forest provides for livelihood needs such as water, firewood, building poles, honey, traditional medicine, and dry season grazing ground for livestock. Further, customary elders use a variety of practices and strategies to share indigenous ecological knowledge with other community members. Some of the strategies include age group meetings, cultural bomas[1] and traditional celebrations. The need for forest protection is recognized and forest protection is practiced, for example, by fencing off water catchments or important trees. Traditional law enforcement and land use plans are also mentioned as important means of protecting the forest.

Findings related to the institutional management of the forest further reveal five local and indigenous institutions that support community efforts in forest management. Both formal and informal institutions such as local NGO’s, community conservation trusts, forest user groups and customary elders were identified. Local institutions were reported to play a major role in the community by building capacity, creating conservation awareness and enforcing the law. Institutions also set rules and regulations for forest utilization. However, a power struggle was reported among institutions operating in the area, which causes difficulty in communication and action.

Despite having clear traditional rules and practices about forest protection, forest cover change does persist. Land cover analysis revealed an increase in degraded forest areas in the last 15 years. The degradation of the forest has resulted, for example, in the drying of about 30 per cent of rivers and streams, and overall reduction in forest cover. Given that Enguserosambu Community Forest is a catchment forest and the core for greater Serengeti ecosystem, if the rate of cover change increases, downstream areas such as Serengeti National Park and Lake Natron will be heavily impacted.

Implications for Practice

The project demonstrated that traditional knowledge contributes to the conservation of the Enguserosambu Community Forest. Community involvement in forest management serves a dual purpose; it helps improve forest conditions while also supporting livelihoods of the communities.Enguserosambu communities through their local institutions have succeeded to protect the forest although not to their full potential due to several impediments such as lack of incentives, extreme poverty and lack of technical expertise. This requires that policies geared towards nurturing, building capacity and improving social capital are enacted to ensure that their involvement is effective and results in both local and national level impacts.

A combination of both indigenous knowledge systems and scientific systems will help provide a broader understanding of ecosystem management. The scale at which local people think and make decisions about their resource is often at micro scale i.e. focusing on the immediate forest, watershed, or creek where their livelihood depend. This micro scale of knowledge possessed by the communities is often forgotten, ignored or obscured when making conservation decision at regional or global scale. Often, conservation planning decisions are derived based on ecological and scientific evidence focusing on a large (macro) scale research. Combining both micro and macro scale in conservation planning is important since they each provide context for the other, and it is also important especially at a time when park and conservation area management approaches worldwide are moving towards improving relationships with its adjacent neighbors.

Thus, in order to maximize forest management efforts and reduce forest degradation rates, western science, in isolation, should not be viewed as the saving grace for forest conservation but rather western science should be coupled with the ecological knowledge and deep connection of indigenous people to develop solutions that are supported by the local population and provide a system of communication that maintains the dignity of the cultures that are a part of the forest ecosystem. Incorporating this ethic into conservation planning is complicated and time consuming but has potential to be much more long lasting.

[1] Cultural bomas is a group of Maasai huts/houses made of mud and cow dung.

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