• Habitat's Humanity

    What does healthcare have to do with healthy forests and fisheries?
    By Beth Geiger
    Photographs by Ami Vitale


frica’s Lake Tanganyika

is famous as one of Earth’s largest. Framed by lush forests and deep mountains, the lake is among the most breathtaking bodies of water on the planet, says David Banks, director of The Nature Conservancy’s work in Africa. “It’s a gorgeous place.”

Lake Tanganyika also stands out as a biological treasure trove. Its waters are home to hundreds of fish species found nowhere else, including many brightly colored cichlids coveted by aquarium owners around the world. The area’s forests and mountains support 80 mammal species, including more than 90 percent of Tanzania’s population of endangered chimpanzees.

But Tanganyika’s waters and forests are under increasing pressure from the desperately poor people who live here. Some 50,000 Mahale villagers in western Tanzania subsist in extreme poverty and isolation. There are no roads, no secondary-school teachers, no doctors. The area’s birthrates and infant mortality rates are both among the world’s highest. Thirteen percent of all children here die before their fifth birthday. Maternal death rates are also high.

Poverty and inadequate health care are parts of a vicious cycle that is compounded by growing pressures on natural resources. Commercial overfishing has reduced the catch for many subsistence communities, forcing families to expand their corn and rice fields into neighboring forests. This in turn reduces wildlife habitat and increases runoff, which then damages fish-spawning areas in the lake, further degrading the fishery and adding to human suffering.

“People who are in dire poverty can’t always afford to make the best, most-sustainable decisions,” says Kristen Patterson of the Conservancy’s Africa program.

To help local communities escape the cycle of extreme poverty, poor health and unsustainable pressure on local natural resources, the Conservancy in 2011 joined forces with Pathfinder International, an organization dedicated to improving healthcare—particularly providing women with reproductive healthcare.

Conserving nature is not often foremost on the minds of impoverished people here, says Banks. “Health care, particularly for women and children, is the most acute need.”

“Through collaboration,” says Sono Aibe, senior advisor at Pathfinder International, and by “integrating health services with ongoing conservation activities, we can improve people’s health and the environment they depend upon for survival.”

For its part, the Conservancy will focus on providing tools for more sustainable resource management.

To better understand the challenges facing local villagers, Conservancy scientist Craig Leisher last year conducted a baseline survey of 487 Mahale households. He was struck by what he learned. “Over and over again, I heard people talk about the problem of healthcare,” he says. “Helping address health issues would change these communities.”

That sentiment was borne out in the survey results: Nearly 90 percent of the households surveyed had at least one member suffer from malaria during the previous year. More than half of the households had a family member who suffered from typhoid. And fewer than half of all births had been attended by a trained doctor, nurse or midwife.
Meanwhile, the majority of the fishermen who were surveyed said that they now have to travel farther than they did five years ago to catch even fewer fish. Seventy-five percent of respondents collected firewood once a week; only half of all respondents knew that silt from deforestation could harm fish.

Focusing on the Conservancy’s area of expertise, the organization’s scientists are studying Lake Tanganyika’s fishery, working with villagers to reduce commercial overfishing and to protect areas where fish spawn. The Conservancy is also studying climate-change impacts and partnering in a survey of the chimpanzee population, which is estimated at fewer than 3,000 animals. The Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Jane Goodall Institute, which have signed onto aspects of the joint project, along with local district governments and the Tanzania National Parks, are working with villagers to plan sustainable management of the surrounding forests.

“Natural resources are the primary building block for people working their way out of poverty,” says Kathryn Doody of the Frankfurt Zoological Society. “So we have to make sure [those resources] are managed well.”

Pathfinder’s focus on health issues will involve educating the community, training additional health workers, improving medical facilities and arranging transportation to bring crucial medical supplies to remote villages.

The project is new and faces big hurdles, but optimism is high. “There are no simple solutions” in the Mahale region, says Banks. But he’s convinced that “we must have a combined approach of protecting the environment while addressing human health.”

This project, says Banks, “represents one of the most exciting on the globe for getting this right. It has all the pieces to make it work.”

"Natural resources are the primary building block for people working their way out of poverty."

Kathryn Doody of the Frankfurt Zoological Society