Let’s Unite

Along the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, something extraordinary is happening. Human health, human rights and environmental conservation projects are taking root together. It’s an extraordinary approach to both people and the natural world they depend on, and it’s working. I had the chance to visit the Tuungane Project (Kiswahili for “Let’s Unite”), and what I saw there re-inspired me about the wisdom and vision of integrated programs that serve people and the natural resources they rely on for life.

Sono NewIn a nutshell, the health of this diverse natural environment and the well-being of its people are threatened by the same forces: extreme poverty, and all the unintended consequences that flow from it. Without healthcare, access to contraception and newborn and maternal health services, the people of this region – and especially the women and girls – struggle mightily to survive and thrive. With populations growing quickly, settlements and farms are encroaching into wild lands. As more forest is cleared haphazardly for agriculture, sediment clogs coastal zones and fisheries decline. Lake Tanzania is the second largest freshwater lake in the world, and holds 1/5 of the world’s freshwater. It is remarkably diverse and a truly profound resource for the several nations and many remote rural communities that line its banks.

But when well-intended conservationists have worked with these communities on conservation, the community members always bring it back to healthcare. That’s what they need, women and men say, to be able to protect their own families, villages, and the ecosystem. So instead of three meetings about sustainable fisheries, forestry management and family planning, now, with Tuungane, we have one. Both men and women attend as well as youth, and everyone works together to address the deep and complex issues of sustainable development and family health.

With our project partners at The Nature Conservancy, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and Tanzania National Parks, we at Pathfinder International are working together to improve human health while at the same time restoring ecosystems and protecting biodiversity. Because we believe that sexual and reproductive health and rights are human rights that belong to all but are greatly neglected for people in these isolated villages, we are especially working to provide access to contraceptives and related sexual and reproductive health services, and other basic primary healthcare services such as deworming.

At a recent gathering in Colorado, I heard Vance Martin of the WILD Foundation sum up some of the profound lessons we’re learning through Tuungane: “The conservationist who does her work without any concept of human rights has no heart. But the human rights campaigner who does her work without any sense of conservation has no future. So we have to bring them together.”

I can’t agree with Vance more. From the very first design meeting of Tuungane, we saw the necessity of integrated service delivery and joint advocacy, by health and conservation partners working together, to meet the needs and rights of impoverished villages out in these remote areas. With better health and the vision of a brighter future ahead of them, the Tanzanian villagers around Lake Tanganyika are awakening to new attitudes, behaviors and practices that will build their resilience for generations to come.

Sono Aibe is Senior Advisor for Strategic Initiatives at Pathfinder International. She also serves as the technical lead for integrated reproductive health and environmental conservation programs such as Tuungane.