Taking Nature’s Pulse in Tanzania’s Breadbasket

This is the third and final post in our “From the Ground Up” blog series, which has been spotlighting a few of the ways CI is scaling up our work to have the global conservation impact we need. Read previous posts in the series.

preparing soil sample, Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

At the Vital Signs training for local technicians in Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park, soil is prepared for further sampling back at the camp. (© Benjamin Drummond / Sara Joy Steel)

We’d just arrived at Vuma Hills Tented Camp, and reunion was in the air. For the first time since the Vital Signs monitoring system launched in Africa early last year, our full team was together in one room.

After many of us traveled to Tanzania from the U.S., Kenya and South Africa and bonded during the four-hour car trip to Mikumi National Park, we were joined by a group of Tanzanian trainers and technicians, most of whom would start work as the Vital Signs Tanzania field team after our week of training.

While some faces were new to me, many were familiar; Vital Signs’ history in Tanzania goes back several years.

Vital Signs technicians in cornfield

Cheryl Palm and Mark Musumba of the Earth Institute, Columbia University review sampling techniques with technicians in a maize plot outside Mikumi National Park. (© Benjamin Drummond / Sara Joy Steel)

The goal of the initiative is to gather near real-time data about ecosystem health and farm productivity to inform agricultural development decisions and monitor their impacts. The Vital Signs pilot project was conducted in 2010, when a field team collected data on agriculture, ecosystems and livelihoods in 12 Tanzanian landscapes.

This data showed that farmers rely on nature for benefits like fuelwood, healthy soils and wild meat and fish, and if ecosystems are damaged they are forced to pay for these and other services. Since the majority of farmers in Tanzania make less than 50 cents a day from agriculture, the value of nature for their livelihoods is critical.

goats near Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Goats graze in a field outside Mikumi National Park. (© Benjamin Drummond / Sara Joy Steel)

Now many of the technicians from the pilot project are returning to the team full time, as Vital Signs expands to collecting data across the entire region known as SAGCOT (Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania), as well as regions of Ghana and Ethiopia.

Tanzania is a focal point for increasing food security in Africa. The Tanzanian government recently pledged to lift 2 million people out of poverty and reach US$ 1.2 billion in revenue from agriculture. The SAGCOT region — home to 24% of the population and a key breadbasket area — is targeted for development as the country works to achieve these goals.

Training days dawned early with boxed breakfast in the field and ended late with careful processing of soil samples collected during the day. Vital Signs is unique in providing integrated data on agriculture, ecosystems and human well-being; the data collected by the technicians during the training included measurements of soil nutrients, water quality, harvest yields, pollinators and land cover.

GPS unit, Tanzania

The technicians are coached in using the Garmin GPSMap 60Cx, the GPS unit used by Vital Signs field teams, to record ecosystem data. (© Benjamin Drummond / Sara Joy Steel)

Emanuel Martin, a Tanzanian trainer from the Tropical Ecosystems Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network who worked on the Vital Signs pilot project, even temporarily installed a camera trap to show us how to capture species diversity. The following morning we loaded the photos to find dozens of images of honey badgers, African civets and baboons.

The days were long and the work was hard, but there was no denying the excitement at seeing this project truly get off the ground.

And even though many of the protocols were familiar, discoveries from data were often new.

“The observation of E. coli during our water sampling exercise was surprising to me, that possibly much of the water used by local people is not safe for consumption, and the government has not put much effort into monitoring water quality,” said Habibu Said, a participant from Vital Signs’ in-country partner Tanzania Forest Conservation Group.

Vital Signs technicians in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Bob Scholes of CSIR South Africa shows the technicians how to take pH measurements in water samples. (© Benjamin Drummond / Sara Joy Steel)

With the Tanzania team collecting data full time, it won’t be long before observations like these can be communicated to policymakers in Tanzania and beyond.

With data coming in from Tanzania and Ghana this year and Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique by 2015, decision-makers and farmers alike will be able to make comparisons across regions and better understand the importance of healthy ecosystems for increased agricultural productivity. Then Vital Signs will be even closer to achieving its ultimate goal: changing minds and decisions to make agricultural development more sustainable.

Sara Barbour is the senior coordinator for Vital Signs. Read the previous posts in our “From the Ground Up” blog series. 

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