TRI FIELD NOTES: Social benefits of biodiversity conservation planning in the Eastern Arc Mountains: Updates from Tanga, Tanzania

TRI FIELD NOTES: Social benefits of biodiversity conservation planning in the Eastern Arc Mountains: Updates from Tanga, Tanzania

By Dana Baker, 2015 TRI Fellow in Tanzania

The Usambara forests, part of Eastern Arc Mountain Range in Tanzania, are considered to be the African equivalent of the Galapagos Islands. Experts consider the area to encompass some of the most important forest blocks in Africa. Driving along the steep single-track road into Amani Nature Reserve, one can find eight of the 21 known species of African violet. Less than 100 meters from my tent late one night, I identified five species of chameleon. One had three horns (Trioceros deremensis); another fit into the palm of my hand (Rhampholeon uluguruensis). A ranger at Nilo Nature Reserve quietly told me that it was a pygmy variety, found only here. The Amani, Nilo and Chome Nature Reserves are the last remnants of the Usambara forests and my field sites are nestled here, in one of the most biologically rich and diverse places on earth.

A dark wall of trees marks a clear boundary between the nature reserves and the sunny, bare land that constitutes village landholdings. Surrounding each reserve subsistent, smallholder farmers clear vegetation to cultivate tea, cardamom, cloves, bananas, ginger, and cassava. Local communities rely heavily on the forest to gather wild fruits, michicha (wild salad greens), fuel-wood, building poles, and medicinal plants that heal all ailments. Agricultural encroachment and intensification is palpable within each of the protected areas. And I’ve heard stories that illegal mining takes place in the high reaches of the watershed, villagers tell me to be careful walking in the forest, “wana bunduki” they whisper: they have guns.

The Eastern Arc Mountains has a long history of biodiversity conservation and development programming. In addition to increased protection efforts by the central government over the last two decades, a number of local and international initiatives have sought to involve local communities more directly in the management of forest resources. Yet, looming challenges persist for many interventions and most projects have shown limited success.

In partnership with Tanzania’s UNDP-implemented Global Environment Fund Small Grants Programme (SGP), my research seeks to understand the impact and sustainability of biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation interventions in the region. I’ve focused on the social and governance aspects of resource conservation around the three nature reserves, as well as the shifting strategies used by national and international institutions to affect change within communities. I conducted structured and semi-structured interviews, held focus groups, and hiked through each reserve and the surrounding villages. I talked with village leaders over steaming cups of chai tea, interviewed NGO directors, national park ecologists, forest wardens, park rangers, and environment ministers to understand the various perspectives present.

Over the course of my research, one project clearly stood out. In 2003, the SGP granted the seed money to start the Amani Butterfly Project. Over this time, the project has grown to include over 500 individual butterfly farmers in ten villages near the Amani Nature Reserve. It works like this: butterfly farmers use the limited harvest of adult butterflies and their host plants from the natural forest to support commercial butterfly farming in adjacent communities. Farmers will capture wild female butterflies and place them in net cages for egg laying. To feed butterfly larvae, they will collect seeds and seedlings from the forest edge to grow around their home-sites. In turn, this helps improves the biodiversity and conductivity in areas outside of the nature reserve.

A butterfly farmer near Amani Nature Reserve in Tanzania shows me how he feeds the caterpillars on host plants around his homestead

A butterfly farmer near Amani Nature Reserve in Tanzania shows me how he feeds the caterpillars on host plants around his homestead. Credit: Dana Baker

In dozens of conversations with butterfly farmers, I started to realize why this project is different compared to other rural conservation and development interventions across the country. Three major factors contribute to the projects’ success:

  1. Individual farmers can see the direct financial impact from their effort. The more time and effort an individual puts into butterfly farming, the more pupae they produce and sell, the more money they make at the end of each month.
  2. The establishment of an elected committee. This committee determines the groups’ politics, finances, and marketing. They also control all stages of the value-chain, from producers to buyers. The latter are the live butterfly exhibitors themselves. Thus, there is no reliance on intermediaries.
  3. A clear revenue sharing framework. 28% of total sales are used for administration costs, 7% goes into a Community Development Fund, and 65% is returned to individual farmers who are paid up-front according to each individual farmer’s output. The Community Development Fund serves to provide a significant contribution to wider social welfare improvements. For example, new classrooms and a network of community tap stands were built and the electricity grid was expanded into several villages.

The Amani Butterfly Project provides farmers with a source of income that has minimal impact on the natural environment. This decreases a farmer’s reliance on income generation from chameleon poaching, timber extraction, and mining. The project has created a selective and profitable niche within the global butterfly markets and provides a standout example of a project that works for both the objectives of biodiversity conservation and for the welfare of the human community. Currently, the project is expanding production and replicating its successes to include Chome and Nilo Nature Reserves.

“TRI Field Notes” share the stories of TRI Fellows as they conduct independent summer research throughout the tropics. The Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) is a center at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. For more information on research and fellowships visit