By Kennedy Daima Mmari
It might be best known for its wildlife, but Tanzania is facing a growing number of environmental concerns and biodiversity in the country is under threat.
Rapid deforestation means more than 370,000 hectares of forest are cleared every year for charcoal, firewood and lumber without a clear plan for reforestation. Habitats are being lost and desertification has increased, with severe consequences not only for wildlife but also the health and livelihoods of farming communities living in rural parts of the country. More than three quarters of Tanzania’s population live at subsistence level, relying on crop growth and seasonal rainfall to survive. Agriculture accounts for a quarter of the Tanzanian economy, but it is these farmers who suffer the real, dangerous consequences of environmental degradation.
In late 2016, a group of us decided to take on the issue with the #50MillionTrees campaign, which aimed to encourage local people to reverse the loss of their natural environment.
We realised that if every one of the 50 million people living in Tanzania could be inspired to take a single action, like planting just one tree, we would gain far more than just 50 million more trees. As well as raising awareness about environmental issues, we could promote sustainability and encourage the idea that everyone can make a difference when it comes to climate change. What #50MillionTrees is trying to show is how individual actions and small changes in behaviour can make a big difference, both in a single country and globally. The idea is to inspire, educate and mobilise the population of Tanzania.
We set up the 50MillionTrees hashtag to generate some interest online and the society now has more than 1,000 young members, all former volunteers of sustainable development charity Raleigh International. We are part of a wider environmental initiative, Youth for Green Growth, which supports youth-led social and environmental action and advocacy in Tanzania, and contributes to the achievement of the UN global goals for sustainable development.
Social media played a big part in raising awareness and getting people involved. So far the group has reached around 150,000 people online. But we also knew that to make this work we needed to connect at the grassroots community level, so we have held more than 50 public awareness raising events across Tanzania, involving another 10,000 people.
Of those 10,000, three quarters have been school children. Reaching out to other young Tanzanians was crucial if the campaign was to be successful in the long run. We must inspire people from a young age to take action and care for the environment – they need to know about everything we get from nature. Young people can then tell their parents and others what they have learnt and how to act.
As part of our initiative groups of schoolchildren in the north of the country decide to plant fruit trees. The idea is that the orchards serve many purposes, including as outdoor classrooms which will give children the opportunity to watch and learn about their environment in a practical, hands-on and exciting way.
We have also held two youth conferences to raise awareness of the green growth agenda in Tanzania. These were attended by representatives from the Tanzanian government, including the ministry responsible for the environment, and gave young people the opportunity to engage with decision makers about green growth policy, deforestation and sustainable resource management.
Following the first conference, the government announced a policy that will see every student in the country plant a tree while at school. We really did not expect to achieve so much so soon, but the group has since been invited to meet with the environment minister to discuss further how we can work with government.
Young people are more important than ever in taking actions that inspire other citizens to contribute to the kind of future we all want to see. Our campaign has shown that young volunteers can make a difference if we work together to make our voices heard. If enough of us do that, people listen and change happens.