Authored by Evans A.K. Miriti

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is working with Pathfinder International, a global reproductive health organization, on an innovative project that simultaneously addresses reproductive health, livelihood and natural resource management needs in a holistic manner. This integrated approach imparts knowledge that is helping people build healthier families and manage the resources on which they depend in ways that will sustain them and local wildlife over the long-term.

Lake Tanganyika and the Greater Mahale Ecosystem

The tropical mountain forests that rise eastward from the sparkling waters of Lake Tanganyika are home to 93 percent of Tanzania’s endangered chimpanzees, elephants and some of the most vulnerable people on Earth. The vast lake (second-largest in the world by length and volume) is an amazing ecosystem in its own right that holds 17 percent of the planet’s freshwater along with an incredible 250 endemic fish species, while hippos and crocodiles troll its shores. The overlap of globally-significant, intact terrestrial and freshwater diversity here led TNC scientists to identify Tanzania’s Greater Mahale Ecosystem (GME) as one of the top conservation opportunities in Africa.

The Greater Mahale Ecosystem and Tuungane Project Area Map


However, the GME’s diversity and the well-being of its people are threatened by the same forces. Local communities of small-share farmers and fishers live close to the land with livelihoods that depend upon the area’s rich natural resources. Productivity in the lake’s deep water fishery—the source of 40 percent of the protein consumed by local families—has decreased 30 percent over the last few decades. As village populations expand their settlements and farms into the wild lands, steep forested hillsides are cleared, causing sediment to enter the lake and reduce the productivity of fish breeding areas. Sediment loading, destructive fishing practices and climate change are the leading causes of pressure on the fishery and Lake Tanganyika’s biological richness. Without protection and better management, this valuable ecosystem, and all that depend on it, will be placed in increasing jeopardy. In this remote region, access to education, health services and modern contraception is lacking. These challenges are intimately linked. For example, lack of access to family planning leads to a rapidly growing human population. The area’s population growth rate is one of the highest in Tanzania. Women give birth to an average of eight children and in-migration from other parts of Tanzania is high. Literacy rates are low and many families are somehow surviving on less than $150 per year. Villagers are left with little choice but to expand their settlements up along nearby rivers, which puts additional pressure on the stressed local fishery and increases deforestation which impacts chimps and washes soil into the lake, further impacting the fishery and exacerbating livelihood and food security challenges. As the condition of the natural world declines, villagers—usually women—must spend even more time finding the supplies they need for basic survival, causing rates of poverty, disease and environmental degradation to increase. Addressing these interconnected issues separately isn’t enough to ensure the future of this magnificent place that all the life that thrives here. A new approach was needed.

Tuungane Project: Uniting People and Nature

To address these challenges, along the Tanzanian shore of Lake Tanganyika and in the GME, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is working with Pathfinder International, a global reproductive health organization, on an innovative project that simultaneously addresses reproductive health, livelihood and natural resource management needs in a holistic manner. This integrated approach imparts knowledge that is helping people build healthier families and manage the resources on which they depend in ways that will sustain them and local wildlife over the long term.

Specifically, after conducting surveys to identify priority chimpanzee habitat within the GME, TNC and their partners are working with villages to establish, patrol and monitor reserves across the most important areas. To increase local interest in keeping forests healthy, they’re also exploring carbon credits as a new source of revenue linked to good forest management. They’re helping communities form legal fisheries management bodies (Beach Management Units or “BMUs”) responsible for protecting fish breeding sites, deterring the use of illegal fishing gear and keeping the shoreline clean to prevent contamination and the spread of disease. Through demonstrations and trainings, they’re sharing agriculture methods that reduce deforestation, keep soil on fields and out of the lake and improve food security and nutrition. To improve access to family planning and reproductive health services and education, Community Health Workers are being trained and deployed while medical facilities are upgraded. And Community Conservation Banks (COCOBAs) are being started to expand access to loans and training for sustainable enterprises.

Over the past four years, TNC and Pathfinder International have piloted and proven these methods in six villages. Now, they, along with other stakeholders, are scaling-up implementation and impact across 24 villages to ensure that chimps, communities and Lake Tanganyika’s splendor can thrive into the future.

Project Scope

The geographic scope of this project captures the GME (4.8 million acres) and its freshwater counterpart—the shores and waters of Lake Tanganyika. The project boundary to the north is the Malagarasi River, to the west is the Tanzania border in the center of Lake Tanganyika, to the south is Katavi National Park and to the east are the Mpanda district boundary and the Ugalla River. The GME comprises a significant portion of the Lake Tanganyika basin in Tanzania, including the catchment areas for the large Malagarasi and Lugufu rivers that feed Lake Tanganyika.


The goal, shared with local partners, is to conserve the Greater Mahale Ecosystem so that it sustains healthy and resilient human and natural communities forever. Specifically, the project aims to:

  • Maintain a diverse and functioning terrestrial ecosystem that is resilient to change; sustains healthy chimpanzee, elephant and other wildlife populations; and provides essential resources for current and future human communities.
  • Maintain the richness and increase the abundance of Lake Tanganyika’s fisheries while improving fishing livelihoods for current and future generations.
  • Help villagers build strong, healthy families by increasing access to family planning and reproductive health education and services, improving hygiene and reducing sanitation-related diseases.


Project Successes So Far

  • 13 BMUs have been formed with fisheries management plans and by-laws in place. 9 of these are legally registered by the national government as community fisheries management bodies with local enforcement authority. BMU efforts have drastically reduced illegal fishing in the BMU-integrated project areas.
  • 8 villages have designated and approved, at the village level, a total of 5,115 acres of freshwater protected areas over fish breeding and critical habitat sites. 3 of these sites (2,596 acres) are demarcated with buoys, enabling enforcement of the boundaries.
  • Regular joint fisheries patrols are being implemented by BMUs; the government’s Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance unit (now based in a project village); district Fisheries Officers; and local police.
  • Approximately 800 villagers are participating in 31 BMU-linked COCOBAs with total savings of 85 million shillings. More than 2,000 loans have been made to BMU-linked COCOBA members to expand or start-up enterprises or finance household needs. Roughly 70 percent of COCOBA members are female, therefore women benefit substantially from COCOBA activities. No one has defaulted on a loan to date.
  • A five-year follow-up survey confirmed that COCOBAs increase income (e.g., from fish drying racks), create new businesses, strengthen existing businesses and give members more self-confidence.
  • The Tuungane project provided 44 fish drying racks and training on their construction to BMUs from 11 villages (4 racks per village). Enterprising villagers have since built more than 50 drying racks for a total of nearly 100 drying racks across 14 villages. Drying fish on these elevated racks rather than the traditional method of drying on the sand increases their market value by approximately 15 percent.
  • Village Land Use Plans are complete in 19 project villages, including designation of more than 200,000 ha of Village Land Forest Reserves. 96 Village Forest Scouts are trained and conducting patrols and by-law enforcement. The new 271,000 ha Tongwe West District Forest Reserve is slated for completion in 2017 and will increase the total area of GME forest under formal protection to 46 percent
  • 11 conservation agriculture demonstration plots are in place in 8 project villages. 335 farmers received formal training and more than 1,050 visited the demonstration plots to learn new techniques to increase yields & conserve soil.
  • Since 2013, more than 31,000 community members have accessed family planning services via Community Health Workers trained by the project or referrals to local health facilities where we are ensuring contraceptives are available.
  • From January through September of 2016, no maternal or neonatal deaths were reported among the 1,496 health facility deliveries that occurred during this period.
  • 1,211 families in project villages have been certified as “Model Households” that meet or exceed basic criteria for healthy and environmentally sustainable living. In 2016, government extension officers also began supporting recruitment and training of new Model Households which has helped dramatically speed the expansion of this program.