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Heroes for the oceans: an example from Tanzania


Over a fortnight ago the world’s leaders gathered in New York for the Ocean Conference. It was a welcome event for many of us in the conservation and development sector in light of the dreadful news of the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Our political leaders called for action for the oceans and our common future.

RUMAKI programme in Tanzania

During that time I was visiting one of our outstanding marine projects, the RUMAKI programme in Tanzania. RUMAKI represents our marine conservation work in the Rufiji, Mafia, Kilwa, Mtwara and Temeke districts along the coast of Tanzania. Over the last 15 years we have been building lasting foundations for the sustainable use of the fisheries resources in this part of the world. We have focused on four pillars:
1. Supporting collaborative fisheries management carried out through local community groups (known as Beach Management Units, BMUs) working with Department of Fisheries;
2. Enhancing livelihoods through capacity building for entrepreneurs and helping them access capital for their activities through Village Community Banks (VICOBAs);
3. Carrying out biodiversity conservation and monitoring for corals and fisheries; and,
4. Influencing policy to support collaborative fisheries management in Tanzania.

In the process we have won awards like the Association for Project Management one and achieved some remarkable successes. These include increased marine area under protection, improved incomes and well-being for participants in VICOBAs which we support. When we report all this we rarely mention people’s names. If we did the list would be long indeed. I must admit though that many, if not all of these people, are very inspiring and truly heroes!

On this trip I was particularly touched by meeting several such people and on this post I would like to share about one of them. I hope this highlights the importance of individual actions wherever we are we. It’s the small actions of many that are vital to turn the tide on the biggest challenges that our world faces.

Mzee Yusuf Mohuni- a hero for the oceans

Mzee is an honorific title in Swahili for elderly men who presumably are well regarded for their wisdom gained over many years. Mzee Yusuf Mohuni rightly deserves that title. With grey hair beginning to cover his head he has certainly seen many days. He is an extraordinarily quiet man- during my time in Kilwa Masoko he was listening intently to on-going discussions about various aspects of our work with the community. He did not impose himself in anyway. However as we finished the second of our meetings with a VICOBA group he approached our team and firmly shook our hands to say ‘thank you!’. It was at this point that my colleague, Thomas Chale -a hero in his own right, froze for a moment and said ‘you must hear this man’s story’.

To my delight I was taken on a tour-de-RUMAKI project and understood more deeply the role that Mzee Yusuf has played for the project and indeed the ocean off the coast of Kilwa Masoko. In the initial stages of the project the fishers in the area misunderstood our aim of promoting co-management approaches as a plan to stop them from fishing in the nearshore waters. This caused protests during the launch of the project. At that time some political officials supported the fishers. However, Mzee Yusuf saw differently- as the chair of the village government he was convinced of the project’s value. So over many weeks (and into months) he used his leadership and community organising skills to convince the angry fishers, politicians and wider community to work with us. Once that was done he still had the task of approaching us to assure us that our staff were going to be safe and well supported. All this done with steely determination and grace!

As they often say the rest is history- a potential project that would have not taken off the ground in Kilwa Masoko was up and running again because of Mzee Yusuf. That’s a hero doing his fair share for the planet. And today those actions are now delivering conservation benefits for the West Indian Ocean and the people of Kilwa Masoko.

All of us can do like Mzee Yusuf

The oceans cover 75% of the planet and hold 97% of the water on earth. They are home to creatures that provide us with enjoyable seafood, over $500 billion is contributed to the world economy by business dependent on the ocean, they absorb significant amounts of carbon from our atmosphere and are important for recreation and tourism. However despite these benefits they are in need of our help. Each one of us can make a contribution to ensuring the oceans like the West Indian Ocean survive through our small individual actions- whether its buying MSC certified foods, reducing our use of plastics, getting involved by donating -the funds go to projects like RUMAKI or talking to your local MP to gain more political support for better stewardship of our oceans. Those actions make heroes!

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