Science with Community: an interview with Tanzanian political ecologist Dr. Francis Moyo

An interview with Tanzanian political ecologist Dr. Francis Moyo

How would you like to introduce yourself?

Hi, I’m Francis. I was born in Iringa – southern Tanzania, where I was raised by my mother. After finishing school in Iringa, I worked for a year before I went to school at Sokoine University of Agriculture where I got my  forestry degree. Afterwards I worked for a tobacco company helping tobacco farmers with their farms. As soon as I got a Swedish scholarship to study in Ethiopia, I left to get a masters in biodiversity. When I came back to Tanzania, I worked as a research coordinator in the private sector and then realized I was more interested in social justice and economics. I received a scholarship to study in the UK and in Denmark. I got an MA in environmental forestry, and then got a PhD in Germany focusing on social issues in forestry. Now I teach political ecology and conservation planning to graduate students at the Nelson Mandela Institute for Science and Technology.

What do you like about science?

Science works with real evidence, seeing problems and reviewing them systematically. Science means a systematic way of doing things. In a free world, people could all contribute ideas freely and equally, but a problem in science is that people only believe you if you have a degree. We  should believe anyone who uses evidence and finds a solution.

What are some other problems in science?

When people discover something, who decides how it’s applied? Also, if you want to implement findings you need funding. In Tanzania, young scientists don’t have the money to do the research they wish to pursue. Sitting in a lab for 10 years is a luxury. In Europe there’s funding for that.

Why were you initially interested in forestry?

It was actually by chance! I didn’t even know what forestry was. I wanted to be a priest at first; I used to be really religious. My parents never went to university, so I didn’t know what I could study. My friend told me to apply to a school so I did. I remember on the first day the professor asked us why we were there, and when I told him I didn’t know, he got angry. He should have known that some people don’t know what they want to be! I initially just wanted to get a degree so I could get a job, but then I realized this was actually really interesting.

What are you currently working on?

I’m doing political ecology. I believe that at this point we know most of the ecological problems; now we have to see how to convince those with soft and hard power to come together so we can negotiate how to live peacefully with nature. The government thinks that people and nature are enemies, and kicks people out when it wants to conserve the environment. It’s a colonial way of thinking. For example, the government wants to use military-style natural resource management and train rangers in military camps. We have to lobby them with evidence, because we know this won’t work. We know community-based conservation works, but people love power. So my goal is to make the people in power understand.

Second, I’m doing community education to make people in urban and rural areas see the benefits of natural resources so they won’t destroy them. It’s demand and supply: if we cut the demand for charcoal, people will stop cutting down trees to sell it.

Can you talk about your work with communities and how they participate in the process?

The university, local and international NGOs and the local government all work together. We have trained local staff on climate change, building biogas plants, ecological restoration, and water harvesting. Also, I teach students so that they can work in rural areas when they graduate. It’s hard because the Tanzanian government provides no money, so people compete for European and American resources, and that money is always earmarked for a specific purpose. There could be a grant for studying eucalyptus, but that might not be what communities need. Instead, our approach is community action research: we collaborate to generate options and people choose what they want to do.

How do you maintain accountability with the communities your research focuses on?

Only young people ever ask me this, older people don’t seem to care. First, I make sure that the communities know that research is about knowledge generation, and that we can help provide answers to questions but not material support. Especially when you’re a student, it’s important to tell people that you’re there to learn from them. Second, we always make sure to come back to the communities and make our findings available. We translate all of our projects into Swahili. In the past we posted translated briefs of the project on the village message board but not everyone was reading them, so for later projects we’ve explained and held discussions about the findings in village meetings. Finally, I’m lucky to have received funding from the Rufford Foundation three times. If we find solutions through a project, then if have the funding, we go back to the village and try to implement them. For example, I did a research project near Tarangire National Park about preventing crop damage from elephants, and we came back and helped people actually put up the fences and chili bombs.

Is it easier to get funding for researching solutions than for implementing them?

Yes, all the money is for research and not implementation. It’s changing slowly, especially around climate change issues. But it makes you ask, are the people with money really interested in solving problems? For example, the way that rich countries try to help Africa isn’t actually for development, because they just give money to politicians that bring it back to Europe. Both the EU and the US have aid programs where Africa sends raw materials and they send processed goods. But if we can only export raw materials then that doesn’t generate income for youth.

On several of your papers you co-authored with researchers from Denmark and other European countries. Were there any challenges collaborating with people who might have less familiarity with the cultural context of the communities you were working with?

They were all my friends, so it was easy. Sometimes our thinking would differ but we would use that to shape the paper. It would be a fight for ideas but not for power.

What should the role of Western researchers be in studying indigenous communities in other countries?

Tanzania has a lot of regulations for foreign researchers: they must collaborate with a local, and the project has to be approved by a review board. Sometimes researchers are disrespectful, but most people have good intentions. Usually, they realize that they can’t help how they thought they could. It’s ignorance, thinking that they can change things overnight.

I know you’ve moved more towards social science, but what are some ways that natural scientists can be more accountable to communities as well?

If you’re doing natural science, ask yourself: why am I studying this, and for whose interest? If you want to study and protect lions, why, and who are you protecting them for? There’s the argument that all species are equal, but research should help people. Lots of researchers from Europe come here and only care about, for example, snakes. What about teaching people how to protect themselves from snake bites, or their livestock being harmed? There needs to be a balance.

The military-style conservation that governments use comes from ecologists who want to protect other species at any cost and don’t work with people. If you took the social dimensions of conservation into account then it would be easy. Humans only destroy habitats out of desperation. If your family is starving and you see an elephant, what do you do? If you think you can control people trying to survive, you will fail. We haven’t learned from the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and so many other places – you can’t control people for long.

Some of your work seems like it could be pretty controversial. Has there ever been resistance to your work?

Much of my work is critical of the government and its policies. Most African governments miss the point: researchers look for what’s going wrong so it can be improved, not what’s going well. It’s our job to solve problems, so politicians don’t like us most of the time. We need permission to publish certain statistics, which creates an issue for science in Tanzania. If someone could be put in jail for publishing something here, they’ll go to Europe or the US to publish it instead. If politicians understood it would be much easier. We write policy briefs but they don’t read them; they just like to tell people what to do.

How accessible is becoming a scientist in Tanzania?

It’s very difficult to go to university, and even harder to become a researcher. Rural communities have a lot of knowledge about conservation, medicine and more but becoming a researcher is a challenge.

Do scientists and rural communities ever work together to combine traditional and institutional knowledge?

No. Educated people think they’re clever and see local people’s knowledge as useless. That’s how science thinks. And when scientists do use traditional knowledge, they don’t acknowledge where they got it from. They’ll hear about a plant and then take it into a lab and publish a paper saying they discovered it, so the locals get no benefit.

Researchers think local people don’t understand natural resource management. But the Masaai will respond, “Do you have trees in the city? No? That’s because you don’t know how to take care of natural resources, but you still come here and tell us we can’t protect the environment.” Some researchers are starting to want to merge the two. I mean, wildlife populations are higher in the areas that people keep livestock; they have always coexisted. Western science is based on local knowledge too, it’s just tested. But we have a long way to go.

Has anything surprised you in your political ecology work?

I used to think people didn’t care about nature. We’re told that people cut trees and destroy things. But now I’ve learned that people, their livelihoods, everything, are all part of the landscape. In all my training – almost 30 years of school – everyone took humans out of natural resource equations and said nature excludes people. But in villages, people, dogs, and cows are all considered part of nature. In English there are the words “natural” and “man-made,” but in Swahili, even shughuli za kibinadamu is still part of nature. Traditions and culture all shape the landscape.

Sometimes I ask my students if a lion killing a zebra is nature, and they always say yes. Then I ask, is a person stealing food from someone else also nature? It’s important to think about what we count as nature and what we count as ethical issues.

The Tanzanian education system is copied from the West, so it doesn’t teach these traditional perspectives on nature. Developing countries should have an advantage because we can take the good parts of Western development and improve the rest. Like if your neighbor builds a house, you can tell the architect “I like that, but make the windows bigger.” But it isn’t going that way; the government is just copying everything.

What does a better science look like to you?

My university’s motto is “Academia for society”. Scientists should go to communities, listen to their problems, and work on solutions with, not for people. If they say “we have no water,” then start asking questions together. Is it because there are no pumps or because the whole area is dry?

Finally, what are your plans for the future?

In a few years I want to shift to working on implementation. Academia is full of theories with few results. Initially I was interested in big organizations UNICEF, but now I can see that they aren’t really for people. The WWF lied to people in Tarangire to force them to establish a Wildlife Management Area and funds militias! But there are other small organizations that start by talking to people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


dri chiu-tattersfield is a nonbinary physics student who can usually be found laying in patches of grass or attempting to farm. things they are currently thinking about include the role of imagination in community organizing. they love writing poetry, doodling and combining the two into comics, and would love to meet u !