Deep in the Rift Valley of East Africa, close to some of the most ancient human remains ever unearthed, one of the continent’s last hunter-gatherer tribes is embracing 21st century environmentalism. The Hadza people, often called “the last archers of Africa,” are selling carbon credits generated from conserving their forests and using the revenues to employ their youths as scouts to keep forest destroyers away.

Starting this March, some 1,300 Hadza and members of the cattle-herding tribes with whom they share the Yaeda Valley of northern Tanzania, began receiving the first payments of what will be nearly half a million dollars annually from a local social enterprise, Carbon Tanzania, for protecting woodland hunting, and grazing grounds across an area larger than New York City.

The project will radically extend an existing decade-old carbon-offsetting initiative on Hadza land north to the edge of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, one of Africa’s most iconic wildlife havens. But, unlike the Ngorongoro reserve, which was in part created by expelling local people, this project will embrace the skills of the hunting Hadza as custodians of the forests and friends of their wildlife.

Many believe that this form of community-based conservation can, besides its climate benefits, unlock new possibilities for protecting Africa’s wild places and the people and wildlife who depend on them. And they see it as a potential model for carbon offset projects not only in Africa but in other parts of the world.

In Tanzania, the locals are enthusiastic. They say the existing project helps them push back against outsiders keen to grab land for farming. “We are seeing a steady increase of some animal species like elephants passing through and in forest growth compared to the beginning,” says Christopher Shija, a scout recruited from Jobaj village. Moshi Isa, another scout who is from Mongo wa Mono village, notes, “The carbon project has strengthened our rights. And increased forest density is sustaining our hunting and gathering life.”

Foreign experts familiar with the checkered history of carbon offsetting agree. Carbon offset projects based on forest conservation are often criticized for failing to provide real carbon savings and simply shifting deforestation elsewhere; for riding roughshod over local forest communities; and for allowing Western companies to put off cutting their emissions. In Tanzania, most such projects have been “largely unconcerned” with the wellbeing of the local communities whose lands host them, according to Sebastién Jodoin, an environmental and land-rights lawyer from McGill University in Montreal. But of those he analyzed, the Yaeda Valley project was “the sole and important exception … designed and implemented in a manner that recognized the traditional rights and knowledge held by Indigenous Peoples.”

Without the projects, “the Hadza would really be on the brink. With it, they are in a more secure position than they have been for decades,” says Fred Nelson, CEO of Maliasili, an organization that supports community conservation projects across Africa. It is “probably the best such project in Africa.”

he Hadza have lived in northern Tanzania for at least 40,000 years. Their ancient ways of living off the land have become a magnet for researchers ranging from anthropologists to those studying healthy eating. Linguists are intrigued by their “click” language, which is spoken nowhere else.

Their land is a patchwork of wet grasslands and craggy hills covered in acacia and water-holding baobab trees. It harbors leopards, lions, gazelles, giraffes, antelopes, wild dogs, and Cape buffalo. The Hadza harvest wild fruits, tubers, honey, natural medicines, and bush meat, says Moshi, and visit sacred sites such as Dundubii, a hill topped with three stones that chime notes when struck.

But these territories have long been under threat. The Hadza have lost more than three-quarters of their traditional lands in the past half-century. Pastoralists bring their livestock onto the grasslands, especially in the dry season, and farmers clear forests to plow.

“Shifting agriculture is the primary driver of deforestation in the region, as in much of Tanzania,” says Jo Anderson, the co-founder and director of Carbon Tanzania. “It threatens the very existence of forest communities as well as Tanzania’s iconic wildlife.”

In the past, invasions have often been officially encouraged, says Anderson. Both in British colonial times and since the country’s independence in 1961, the nomadic ways of the Hadza were regarded by urban elites as an embarrassing cultural leftover. In the 1970s, they were subjected to a national policy of enforced settlement known as “villagization.” In 2007, the government announced plans to lease most of the Yaeda Valley to a hunting safari company from the United Arab Emirates.

But the tide has turned. Unexpected heroes in the story have been three American brothers — Daudi, Mike, and Thad Peterson. Raised in Tanzania, they had operated an early ecotourism business, Dorobo Safaris, before, in the 1990s, setting up and funding the Ujamaa Community Resource Team, or UCRT, an NGO helping villagers and Indigenous groups using Tanzanian land laws to secure legal title to their territories.

The UCRT’s Indigenous activists successfully campaigned against the planned Arab takeover of the Yaeda Valley. And in 2011 they secured title to about 50,000 acres, later expanded to 84,000 acres, of the Hadza’s ancestral lands, giving them the legal right to rebuff encroachers. The rights also brought responsibilities, and the UCRT then helped the Hadza, in consort with their pastoralist neighbors, to draw up land-use plans required by the Tanzanian government as a condition of title, zoning the territories for farms, housing, pastures, meeting grounds, cattle enclosures, water collection, and hunting grounds and setting aside some lands for nature.

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