Rough Waters: Nature and Development in an East African Marine Park

Rough Waters: Nature and Development in an East African Marine Park

by Christine Walley

ISBN: 9780691115603

Publisher Princeton University Press

Published in Business & Investing/Popular Economics

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OFF THE EASTERN coast of Africa, a series of islands form a chain, beginning just below the continent's protruding horn and ending in the region now known as Mozambique. These islands, from Pate and Lamu in the north to Kilwa in the south, together with adjacent coastal settlements, have historically formed the "Swahili" coast. At a time when Europe was experiencing what is sometimes known as the Dark Ages, this region formed part of a dynamic Indian Ocean trading world, serving as a gateway between the peoples of Africa and the regions to the east. Following the seasonal monsoon winds, dhow traders plied their wares between East Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Persia, India, Indonesia and beyond, creating far-flung social and economic networks (Chaudauri 1985; J. Abu Lughod 1989; Frank 1998; Ghosh 1992). As part of this cosmopolitan milieu, African coastal residents regularly interacted with visiting traders and immigrants from Arabia, India, and other regions, as well as with African peoples living farther inland, who supplied such goods as ivory, animal hides, amber, and human slaves. The fluid interactions of this ocean-centered world defined the East African coast for centuries before it was interrupted by the land-based logic of European colonization and, eventually, the formation of independent nation-states.

Of all these islands and coastal settlements, Mafia Island is perhaps the least well known today. Long dominated by neighboring Kilwa Island that had controlled the medieval Sofala gold trade, Mafia came under the suzerainty of Zanzibar Island to the north in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this period, Zanzibar emerged as coastal entrepot for Indian Ocean trade as well as terminus of the mainland caravan routes, and later served as a site of clove plantations that fed a growing international economy hungry for spices. Eventually, however, the economic and political heart of the region shifted to the city of Dar es Salaam, located on the mainland to the south of Zanzibar. Founded in 1862 by Zanzibar's Sultan Majid, Dar es Salaam later became the colonial administrative center for mainland Tanganyika under the Germans and, after World War I, the British. In 1890, Mafia Island, which had been a dominion of Zanzibar, was "traded" to the Germans and became a mainland territory, economically and politically oriented toward Dar es Salaam. As part of the "mainland," Mafia gained its independence along with the rest of Tanganyika in 1961. However, it was only after the 1964 political merger between Tanganyika and the newly independent revolutionary government of Zanzibar that the contemporary nation-state of Tanzania was formed.

Located a mere 20 km from the mainland, the Mafia group of islands appears at the point where the massive delta formed by the Rufiji River meets the Indian Ocean. Some have argued that the name "Mafia" derives from the KiSwahili "Maafya" referring to a healthy place, an intimation of the alleged healing properties of waters on the islands (Saadi 1941). Others link the name to the medieval town of Kisimani Mafia and note that it was historically popularized as "Monfia" by visiting Arabs (Baumann 1957 [1896]). In the nineteenth century, however, residents themselves referred collectively to these islands as "Chole," after the smallest inhabited islet that at the time served as the urban center for the entire chain.

Although Mafia's residents participated in global trading networks centuries before the arrival of Europeans, Mafia, ironically, became increasingly "remote" over the course of the twentieth century. Indeed, Mafia residents today agree with those in other parts of the country that their island is lamentably isolated from the rest of Tanzania as well as regions beyond. During the mid-1990s, Kilindoni, Mafia's government seat, constituted an unremarkable settlement of concrete block offices and houses that were tenuously linked to each other by a few telephone and electricity lines. Although there had been a prodigious traffic of wooden sailing vessels in the past, the number of dhows in the region had since been reduced to an anemic trickle, and larger "modern" ships docked infrequently at Mafia in part due to the dangers of Kilindoni's shallow port. On the main island, a mere handful of motorized vehicles traveled the sandy roads that became impassable with the onset of the rainy season, and tiny single-engine airplanes made only rare, erratically scheduled landings on an airstrip barely distinguishable from the surrounding sand.

Ironically, however, Mafia's current "remoteness" has attracted a new kind of attention, one that serves as the impetus for the dynamics to be explored in this book. According to a certain symbolic logic, isolation signals not hardship but the "pristine" nature of the islands and their environment-a situation attractive to both conservationists and the international tourism trade. Such dynamics are not entirely new on Mafia. During the British colonial period, a European-owned fishing lodge operated in Utende, a village on the southeastern coast of Mafia's main island. During the post-independence period, this lodge was supplanted by a government-owned and managed hotel on a nearby site. During the late 1980s and 1990s, however, tourism increased dramatically along the Tanzanian coast due in large part to the encouragement of international donors as well as policy reforms that were designed to pull poorer regions more tightly into an international economy.

By the mid-1990s, signs of expanding tourism activity were widely apparent in the otherwise quiet village of Utende. Gangs of workers laid cement foundations, pounded coral rock and set mangrove beams, while hotel staff traveled the unpaved roads in four-wheel drive vehicles in order to meet supply-laden planes at Kilindoni's landing strip. During this period, four new tourist establishments came under construction in Utende. The first completed lodge exhibited striking differences from the existing government hotel, despite a common wish to attract a prosperous international clientele. The older establishment, built in the "high modernist" architectural style that was favored by so many newly independent African states in the 1960s and 1970s, emphasized such (often nonfunctioning) luxury items as flush toilets and air-conditioning. In contrast, the new private lodge sought to attract a clientele interested in understated, although also luxurious, ecotourism. Comprised of a series of thatched bungalows surrounding a central terrace and overlooking Chole Bay, the new lodge exuded an air of peacefulness and discrete isolation. Soothing and artful shades of ocher and blue dominated the decor. Impressionistic paintings of underwater marine life graced the wall behind the circular bar; hand-blown glassware rested delicately on the heavy wooden tables and bamboo chairs festooned with floral-patterned pillows invited sun-weary tourists to rest on the shaded terrace. Although guests stubbornly continued to arrive on Mafia only in trickles, Utende's new tour operators, largely Euro-American expatriates and white Africans, had hope. Their gamble in building on Mafia was a calculated one, premised on the rise of a new tourist attraction-the Mafia Island Marine Park.


Gazetted in 1995 and covering approximately one-quarter of Mafia's main island and most of the surrounding smaller islands and ocean, the Mafia Island Marine Park is the first national park within Tanzania to focus on the marine environment. In a country where nearly 25 percent of the land mass has been dedicated to some form of nature protection, it is also the first park to legally incorporate the people who live there, a pointed departure from the European colonial belief in the inherent incompatibility of people and wildlife. Mafia's internationally funded park was designed to be a premier example of a new kind of natural area-one that would encourage conservation and development through "sustainable development" based on ecotourism. Planned by international donors and environmental organizations in cooperation with national government officials, the park called for the participatory involvement of area residents, a position that echoed the calls for greater democracy being made throughout Africa at the time.

During the first week of October in 1995, the new tourist lodge was unusually full. The source of the bustle was not tourists, however, but dozens of Tanzanians and Europeans, arranged purposefully around the tables of the terraced dining room. The meeting, called by park staff, included representatives of environmental organizations, Tanzanian government officials, tour operators, a handful of European development workers and academics, and, finally, representatives of Mafia's villages. The latter, a quiet group of men, some dressed in frayed, white Islamic robes and skull caps, others in worn but neat Western shirts and trousers, had been popularly elected by their home villages. If they felt uncomfortable in these surroundings-the hotel grounds being a place well known for prohibiting island residents from "trespassing"-their composure offered no trace of it.

The gathering was a seminar on "ecotourism," which was hosted by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international environmental organization. The meeting was intended to call together the "stakeholders" in the newly formed marine park, but it soon became clear that these stakeholders possessed widely differing agendas. Scientists had described the region as "pristine," a site of ecological biodiversity of importance not only for Mafia but also for regions beyond. Like the coast's own complex history, marine life in the Indian Ocean clearly ignored the penciled-in national boundaries of contemporary maps and, as environmentalists pointed out, Mafia appeared to serve as a crucial seed bank for other parts of the world. Spurred by a spate of research on Mafia's marine environment that was conducted during the late 1980s, representatives of national and international bodies had lobbied hard for a marine park. Responding to criticisms of preservationism as practiced within Tanzania's older wildlife parks, conservationists involved in park planning for Mafia, like many of their counterparts in the world of development, stressed the need for community participation rather than the exclusion of area residents as had been standard in the past. Participation, it was argued, was not only crucial for ethical reasons, it was also more efficient, and ultimately cheaper than the elaborate enforcement required to police the use of island resources.

For their part, Tanzania's national officials had long recognized the ability of protected areas to attract international tourism. In this debt-ridden country, which is also one of the poorest in the world, national parks have served as a crucial source of foreign exchange. In addition, during the 1980s and 1990s the World Bank and IMF were presiding over attempts to transform Tanzania's socialist economy to a market-oriented form of capitalism through "structural adjustment" policies. These financial institutions, along with other multilateral and bilateral development agencies, were anxious to encourage tourism-one of the largest items in global GNP-as a development strategy for Tanzania and other poorer countries. Thus, the marine park fit comfortably into the agendas of both government officials and development organizations. Consequently, in a joint effort between international organizations and Tanzanian national ministries, an organizational and legal framework was ultimately approved in the mid-1990s that would serve as the basis not only for the Mafia Island Marine Park, but as a prototype for future marine parks throughout Tanzania.

Unlike the situation in many wildlife parks on the mainland, Mafia's residents were largely supportive of the concept of a marine park. Many depended heavily on fishing for their livelihoods and were angered by the practice of "dynamite fishing," an illegal technique used primarily by nonresident fishers from Dar es Salaam operating in the waters around Mafia. The dynamite blasts created underwater shock waves, which killed or stunned the fish that then floated to the surface and were scooped into boats, providing fishers with large harvests that required minimal (although risky) effort. Dynamiting, however, also ravaged the coral reefs that shelter fish and on which fish feed-reefs that are known on Mafia as the nyumba ya samaki or "home of the fish." According to residents, the underwater landscape was increasingly turning into a "desert" (jangwa) and the numbers of fish were decreasing. Although many residents on Mafia had reservations about the creation of a marine park, and worried in particular about potential restrictions on their own fishing practices, most were more concerned with the need to stop dynamiting. In a planning workshop held on Mafia in 1991, representatives of Mafia's villages, once assured of residents' rights to participation, of help in halting dynamiting, and of the creation of jobs and economic opportunities within the park, enthusiastically agreed to support the incipient marine park (MTNRE 1992; T. R. Young 1993).

However, the 1995 Ecotourism Seminar was the first meeting-as representatives of the ten villages located within the marine park would ruefully point out-to which they had been invited since the initial planning workshop in 1991. While the seminar had been called by WWF to discuss ways to ameliorate any detrimental social and environmental effects associated with tourism within the park, village representatives politely but persistently steered the discussion to more fundamental issues about the set-up and running of the park. Although the park had been described in the project's draft general management plan as "for the people and by the people" (GMP 1993:iv), residents made it clear that even the most basic information about the park had not been shared with them. The growing tensions surrounding the park emerged in striking form that afternoon. When television journalists from Dar es Salaam and their camera crew began conducting interviews on the hotel's luxurious patio, village representatives, after conferring in hushed tones, put forward a spokesperson to address the television camera in KiSwahili. In a move that would startle national and international representatives at the seminar, the village delegate boldly told the camera that members of the government agency that was entrusted with overseeing the creation of the marine park had in fact been "cooperating" with dynamite fishers, and that Mafia residents wanted the government agency removed from involvement in the park. Although the content of the message surprised few present, the openness of the accusation created a stir at the workshop (although many non-KiSwahili-speaking participants would only belatedly hear of the accusation, if at all). Perhaps even more startling than the words of the village representative was the subsequent broadcasting of this interview on national television and radio in the heady days preceding Tanzania's 1995 multiparty election, the first since the beginnings of one-party rule in 1965.


The contestation at the 1995 Ecotourism Seminar offers a brief glimpse of the social struggles which occurred during the implementation process of the Mafia Island Marine Park between 1994 and 1997. The goal of this book is to capture the nature of those struggles-what I refer to as the "social drama" of the marine park-in terms of the day-to-day tensions and alliances found among Mafia residents, government officials, and representatives of international organizations as each group attempted to control and define the incipient park. Although Mafia residents were initially both hopeful and wary of the marine park, their position had turned to one of strong support by the time I finished my fieldwork in 1997. Yet as documented in the epilogue to this book, the "social drama" of the marine park has been an ongoing one filled with occasionally dramatic reversals. When I returned to Mafia in 2000, many residents now claimed they hated the park, stating that it was waging a "war" against them and their livelihoods. In this book, I have attempted to make sense of these evolving struggles, considering the broader socioeconomic, political, and historical contexts in which such contestation has occurred. The goal of attempting to understand how this once promising project came to be widely hated by Mafia residents is, I believe, an important one. The answers suggest issues that should be addressed, not only by scholars of East Africa, environmentalists, or aid workers, but also by those interested in thinking critically about interactions between various parts of the world in the first years of a new millennium.


Excerpted from "Rough Waters: Nature and Development in an East African Marine Park" by Christine Walley. Copyright © 2004 by Christine Walley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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