Mara Wetland Becomes Dryland

Ewald Bogers
This thesis describes how the social-ecological system around the Mara wetlands has changed during the previous five decades. These wetlands are mainly fed by the Mara River, which has its sources in the Kenyan Mau Escarpment. After flowing through two worldfamous wildlife parks (Serengeti and Maasai Mara), it continues in the downstream Tanzanian Mara wetlands and finally flows out in Lake Victoria.
The major focus of this thesis is on how the riparian Wakenye people in Northwest Tanzania have adapted their livelihoods to the changing context.

Mara Wetland Becomes Dryland


This thesis describes how the social-ecological system around the Mara wetlands has changed during the previous five decades. These wetlands are mainly fed by the Mara River, which has its sources in the Kenyan Mau Escarpment. After flowing through two worldfamous wildlife parks (Serengeti and Maasai Mara), it continues in the downstream Tanzanian Mara wetlands and finally flows out in Lake Victoria.

The major focus of this thesis is on how the riparian Wakenye people in Northwest Tanzania have adapted their livelihoods to the changing context. The most prominent dynamics have derived from larger scales and are found in a rapid expansion of the Mara wetlands and the vanishing of the traditional institutions (Institutions are here defined as: all knowledge, discourses, regulations, norms, values and ideas that influence human behaviour).

In downstream Tanzania, the trade-offs from upstream merge with numerous other variables that have contributed to larger and prolonged inundations. Among these variables, local land use, fluctuating water level in Lake Victoria, two social-ecological feedback mechanisms and climatic events (e.g. El Niño) seem to have contributed to a constantly changing hydrological system in the wetlands. This constantly changing hydrology has pushed the local vegetation cover into successive regimes: from dryland to forest and eventually into papyrus wetland. Because the hydrology is the driving variable in these regime shifts, the subsequence of regimes differs in time and place according to the local water quantity. From the 1960s until the 1990s, the rapid pace of these ‘creative destructive’ regime shifts created mainly opportunities for the Wakenye. In particular, the enlargements of open water bodies and forests turned out positively for the livelihoods of these riparian people.

However, growing populations of crocodiles, (malaria) mosquitoes, weavers (that destroy crops) and hippos are mostly experienced as threatening or harmful by locals. Moreover, from 1990s onwards, the regime shifts in the wetland ecology turned out more negative for the Wakenye: open water bodies started to silt-up and waterweeds have replaced pasture and forests. Consequently, the Wakenye shifted their livelihood activities regarding forest and pasture resources from the wetland area towards the uplands and hills. This change in land use has led to an increasing competition and more prominent trade-offs between livelihood activities. Together with some other variables (e.g. increase in rainfall variability and vanishing of socialist subsidies), these trade-offs have contributed to undesirable conservation phases in four important livelihood activities (animal keeping, crop cultivation, fisheries and use of forest resources).

The local people haven not been able to reorganize the local institutions according to the fluctuations in natural resources. This lack of reorganizing capacity is not only linked to the rapid ecological regime shifts, but also to institutional dynamics that have derived from larger scales. The local institutional setting in the Mara region has been affected a great deal by influences of colonial rule, Christianization and modernization. Eventually, the socialist Ujamaa Villagization Program in the 1970s triggered a release phase in the local institutions regarding natural resources. Consequently, the hill forest became openly accessible for a rapidly growing population. The newly available wetland resources and subsidies from the socialist government first compensated the increasing demand for natural resources. These compensations seem to have contributed to a postponement of institutional reorganization. When the wetland dynamics became more negative for the Wakenye during the 1990s, the institutions were still in vacuum. This vacuum, together with scarcity of resources and a low degree of homogeneity with regard to the dependency towards natural resources, has made any attempt in reorganization difficult.

The regime shifts in the wetland ecology during the 1990s also provided new opportunities. Newly emerged resources have been successfully linked to newly emerged markets and people started to experiment with the larger availability of (ground) water in crop cultivation. Moreover, a number of new livelihood activities have added to the possible options of the livelihoods and hence help to diversify the activities. This strategy contributes to the livelihood sustainability. All newly found activities have derived from interaction between scales in which individual locals preferred an enterprising attitude above prevailing community conservatism.

However, even though there are some signs of transitions in the livelihood system from the Wakenye, the main livelihood activities are still practiced on an equivalent way as 50 years ago. These livelihood activities seem to be stuck in conservation phases. For this reason we cannot speak about a regime shift in the local livelihood system, while the institutional and ecological settings have undergone (several) regime shifts. This results in a mismatch between the livelihoods of the Wakenye and their context. This mismatch does create problems in the present, but also reveals opportunities for renewal. Features that seem to disable renewal or reorganization in livelihood activities are presumed to be connected to factors as a low degree of institutional bias for innovation and multiple functions of livelihood activities.

A number of interventions in the local system have improved the livelihood sustainability. These interventions introduced new livelihood resources or activities (e.g. water dams and irrigation farms), injected knowledge or means, or provided assistance in reshaping the institutions. The outcomes of interventions in local institutional reorganization phases have shown to be unpredictable: both progress and regress belong to the possibilities. For these reasons, a certain degree of trial and error appears inevitably. However, a number of features of the interventions show the potential to prevent regress and stimulate progress. The features of the successful intervention all share a combination of bonding and bridging social capital (on multiple-scales), redundancies, tight feedbacks or intensive involvement. Bonding social capital appears to reduce individual vulnerability and bridging increases the possible inputs of knowledge and means. Redundancies, multi-scale features and tight feedbacks all function to catch-up with the unforeseen outcomes. Moreover, a synthesis between bonding and bridging on multiple scales seems to have the potential to tackle the problems of interventions or initiatives that are



designed either only internally (‘bottom-up’) or only externally (‘top-down’). A synthesis




between internally and externally designed approaches seems to be the most suitable to

accomplish successfully reorganization in order to increase the livelihood sustainability.

Even though there are various reasons to describe some local components around the

expanding wetland as negative for the Wakenye (e.g. increase in aquatic plants, dangerous

animals and malaria mosquitoes), it is important to remain careful with social-ecological

engineering. There exists a high degree of interconnectedness between the various socialecological

components around the wetland expansion. This complexity is further enlarged by

the social heterogeneity in dependency to the wetland functions (on multiple scales) and

services and the interconnectedness of the social relations.

In the perspective of upstream-downstream environmental justice issues, it should be

noted that the effects of livelihoods upstream merge with a large number of other variables in

the wetland ecology and that, therefore, any definite assessment about upstream-downstream

effects stays beyond the scope of this research. However, the assumed role of papyrus (and

other wetland vegetation) in trapping and retaining sediments may be of vital importance for

people that live near the river mouth. It remains difficult to weight the value of this function

with the observed predominant disadvantages of this vegetation cover for the riparian villages.

Moreover, even though the local disadvantages of this vegetation cover seem to outweigh the

local advantages (compared with the previous cover: forest), it should be noted that the ‘poor’

seem to have benefited more from this change than the ‘rich’ (the poor practice more papyrus

mat-making and the rich keep more cattle, and pasture has been replaced by papyruses).

Nonetheless, it can be stated that the livelihood system of the Wakenye has not been

able to adapt in a sustainable way to the highly dynamic context. A larger adaptive capacity of

the livelihood systems in these villages will not only contribute to the sustainability of the

locally based livelihood system. Also the sustainability of the livelihoods upstream could be

improved by better local adaptations, in the sense that their trade-offs may be received more








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Sociale Geografie en ontwikkelingsstudies
Universiteit van Amsterdam
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