Mangroves at low tide in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Photo credit: WorldFish/Samuel Stacey

Muddy waters: Exploring mangrove governance in Tanzania’s Rufiji Delta and beyond

Putting people first

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NAIROBI, Kenya (Landscape News) — When it comes to governance and management, mangrove forests around the world are frequently left off the map.

Occupying the murky boundaries between land and sea, they’ve often been devalued as pesky shrubs that muddy up the coastline and get in the way of beach going.

But millions of people rely on mangrove ecosystems for their food and income, as well as protection of their homes and farmland from high tides and storm surges.

For example, a recent case study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) shows that in the Rufiji Delta in Tanzania, local residents harvest mangrove wood for posts and poles, fuelwood and charcoal, and use the fruits and roots for medicinal purposes. Many species of fish also use the mangroves to breed, and villagers catch these fish to eat and sell.

In recent years, the high value of mangroves for carbon sequestration and biodiversity preservation in the context of climate change has also come to the attention of scientists, conservationists and concerned citizens across the globe.

Yet most research so far has emphasized the biophysical and ecological elements of these environments, rather than the people and policymakers whose actions ­– and inactions – have an impact on forests from day to day.

Now, a global CIFOR review, of which the Rufiji Delta case forms one component, seeks to right this imbalance. The work explores mangrove governance across a range of ecological and social contexts, in a bid to ascertain the kinds of conditions that support effective governance of these ecosystems to meet multiple goals.

At the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Nairobi later this month, a side event devoted specifically to mangrove preservation and restoration around the African continent’s coastlines will attract a range of stakeholders offering an opportunity to review lessons learned from research undertaken in the Rufiji Delta and mangrove ecosystems across the globe.


The Rufiji Delta boasts around 22,000 hectares of mangrove forest, which is among the largest in East Africa. It constitutes the most important fishery along Tanzania’s coastline, accounting for about 80 percent of all wild shrimp caught. It is also a particularly useful place to explore best practices in mangrove management, because a number of different approaches are being trialled.

Historically, Rufigi’s mangrove forests were classified as forest reserves. The government, operating through the Tanzania Forest Service (TFS), retained ownership rights, and regulated local communities’ rights to access and use, but in most places the approach failed. Community members and outsiders continued to exploit the forests, and the government lacked the coordination and resources to stop them. As a result, the forests experienced steady degradation and decline.

Why didn’t the approach succeed? Essentially, it would seem, the protectionist policies did not take into account people’s reliance on the mangroves for survival or growing economic pressures on the forested areas from within and beyond the delta.

The experience reflects that of the global study, which found that authority over mangrove forest management is overwhelmingly vested in state institutions, which tend to prioritize forest protection over sustainable use – and then struggle to enforce it.


So from 2010, the TFS began trialling a range of governance and tenure arrangements, aiming to devolve forest management through a collaborative relationship between state and non-state actors who hold a stake in the mangroves and other coastal resources.

These arrangements include: providing short-term permits for individuals to grow rice in specific areas while facilitating mangrove regrowth (a form of taungya); group rehabilitation schemes that pay community members to reforest; and a Joint Forest Management (JFM) system, under which communities negotiate their management rights and responsibilities with the TFS (although ownership remains with the state).

The individual farming scheme has proven largely unpopular and unsuccessful. Participating farmers are expected to comply with a broad range of responsibilities – and threatened with punishment if they fail to do so – while receiving only short-term, limited and relatively insecure rights. As a result, most farmers involved in the scheme tend to actively prevent mangrove regrowth, because once the trees reach a certain size they lose the right to farm the area.

The collective rehabilitation schemes have been reasonably popular with communities because of the financial benefits they entail. However, because these schemes also fail to confer long-term management rights or responsibilities on community members, those involved are not incentivized to ensure the trees’ survival, and in many cases return to farming the areas after the scheme has finished.

The JFM system appears most popular to date, as it provides broader rights and benefits than the other two mechanisms, and means that community members’ actions (such as harvesting timber, poles, charcoal, firewood and other products) are no longer criminalized.

In the global study, there was some variance over the extent to which customary rights and patterns of use and management are recognized by these statutory systems, with the lowest level of recognition in Africa when compared to Latin America and Asia. The study showed clearly that wherever community rights were not respected, mangrove forests tended to degenerate.

But experimentation with tenure devolution and community-based approaches is increasing, as the ineffectiveness of protectionist regimes becomes increasingly apparent. The authors speak of a “nascent tenure transition” that is taking place in many of the sites reviewed, either through government-instigated devolution, or “in a de facto fashion by communities creatively forging their own regulations to manage their forests,” in collaboration with local government and other stakeholders.


A crucial element of effective community-based mangrove management is ensuring that all those using the forests can participate in decision-making about them. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, around half of all mangrove users – that is, the women – are unable to contribute fully to these processes.

In Rufiji, women know mangroves intimately, as they use them extensively, for collecting firewood, farming rice and catching crabs and fish. Elderly women’s knowledge of mangrove forest products ­­– particularly their medicinal properties – is well known and appreciated by community members.

But so far, under all of the schemes outlined above, women have had few chances to make decisions on mangrove management. Village policies stipulate that women make up 40 percent of resource committee members, but cultural and religious norms – such as the fact that it is considered bad manners for a woman to speak in public – often prevent their voices from being heard.

The researchers point out that women-only groups for discussion and decision-making could be one way to enable participation. However, they also caution against isolating women from broader community engagement through developing these alternative spaces.

Women’s exclusion from mangrove management is also a prevalent issue globally, despite gender-differentiated use of mangroves in most of the sites researched. As such, the researchers recommend exploring some of the methods that have proven effective for increasing women’s participation in decision-making in terrestrial forestry spheres. For instance, CIFOR researchers and partnerships have used an “Adaptive Collaborative Management” (ACM) approach with considerable success, through building leadership capacity, providing mentoring support, adopting decision rules that favor consensus, and ensuring men’s support for women’s leadership.


The Rufiji Delta study also found a lack of coordination between forestry and marine conservation agencies, which made mangrove management less efficient. For example, forestry officials cannot pursue illegal mangrove loggers when they reach the open ocean, which is beyond their jursidiction. This absence of clarity often leads to conflict, including a case whereby marine conservation officials actually arrested TFS officials for patrolling an area that, unbeknownst to the forestry officers, had been taken out of their jurisdiction and re-designated as a marine park.

The essence of this story was familiar across the global review, too: mangroves, positioned as they are between land and sea, generally fell in an ambiguous spot for state regulation, so governance arrangements were often complex and/or inappropriate. Most often, the forestry sector was responsible, but frequently this meant that management frameworks for terrestrial forests were applied, even when they were inappropriate for these distinctive ecosystems.

So, the researchers advocate for developing frameworks that are specifically designed for mangrove governance, which are able to coordinate across different levels and agencies of government. In general, they are hopeful that the current spotlight on blue carbon will prompt coordinated, participatory and responsive governance for these crucial ecosystems, and the people who call them home.

To learn more about mangrove management, tune in to the African Blue Carbon Forum at the GLF at 9 am Nairobi time (GMT+3) on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. For more information, please contact Esther Mwangi, principal scientist and a governance researcher with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).


Community benefits key to landscape restoration, CIFOR forest governance researcher says

Governing mangroves: Unique challenges for managing Tanzania’s coastal forests


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forestsgenderGLFNairobi2018governancelivelihoodsMangrovesRufiji DeltaTanzaniawomen



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