When forest governance awareness kicks out corrupt leaders

12Nov 2016
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
When forest governance awareness kicks out corrupt leaders

WHEN Thomas Michael Mbwaga together with other village government officials from Mihima village in Lindi district attended a short course on managing revenues from the sale of products from the village forest,

he thought it would be wise to brief the village natural resources committee and other villagers on what they had learnt.

The short course had been conducted by a non-governmental organization, Tanzania Natural Resources Forum, through its Mama Misitu Campaign, which is a communication strategy that seeks to raise awareness among communities living around indigenous forests so that they may be able to benefit from the natural resource through conservation and sustainable consumption.

The campaign also aims to enable traders in forest goods to conduct business profitably while paying all required taxes and contributing to the conservation of forests.

Mama Misitu seeks to institute good forest governance at village, district, regional and national levels so that the government can promote legal trade in forest products and conservation and protection of forests by providing room for participation of all stakeholders.

Little did Mbwanga realize that the new knowledge that most of the villagers had acquired through his efforts would be used to kick him and his entire government out of office after they failed to implement what they had preached.

“The villagers had learned to track income and expenditure of funds which they had earned through the sale of forest goods from their forest, Mihima. They could now question their leaders on management of the forest and other resources and they could find out where these leaders had gone wrong. They could no longer be cheated,” explained Emilian Beda Hokororo, the acting village chairman.

By April 2015, most of the villagers had been trained and awareness on tracking their government’s earnings and expenditure was high. By August in the same year, the villagers staged a revolt that saw all the village government officials removed from office and an interim government set up to run affairs of the village.

Following the various training sessions, the villagers realized the need for proper keeping of financial records which their leaders had not practised hitherto. The knowledge, they believed, would also make their leaders more responsible and help villagers to hold them accountable for their deeds.

However, as soon as they started to put into practice what they had learned, the villagers identified some weakness among the government officials and various measures taken to ensure that the leaders changed their ways recorded little success.

“There was gross misuse of funds by the village government. Villagers realized, for example, that income recorded in the government’s books was far less than actual revenue earned sale of goods that had been harvested from their forest,” explained Hokororo.

According to other sources, the villagers were eager to change the way their resources were being managed by their government and such changes should have been reflected in, among other things, sustainable harvesting of the forest, proper record keeping of goods harvested from the forest and who bought them as well as proper book keeping of the villages income and expenditure. However, this did not happen and the villagers became frustrated.

“Government leaders teamed up with illegal traders and pocketed the money that should have gone into the village fund. In some cases they did not collect the entire levy from traders who bought goods from the village forest and there were allegations that the government leaders colluded with traders who had no business licenses,” explained Said Mohamed, a member of the village council. He added that there was no transparency in the operations of the government particularly in the management of natural resources.

This claim was given more weight, according to Mohamed, by the fact that the government kept financial records for income from other resources but not from the forest. “This fueled discontent and frustration among the villagers as a result of which they removed the government from office,” he said.

“The education the villagers had received became a curse to the village government as the former forced them out of office,” he added.

But the village government did not go alone. “The villagers also disbanded the natural resources committee on grounds that they failed to report to the village council that the leaders were pocketing money from the sale of forest goods,” explained Mohammed.

So, since August 2015, the village is being administered by an interim government. More than a year has gone by since the conflict started and it would appear that there is no solution in sight.

The village has established a select committee to pursue the matter with the district administration but while efforts to get things in order are at an advanced stage, the interim government has also run into trouble.

“Now villagers have also turned against the ‘stand-in’ government, accusing them of staying in power longer than necessary and doing nothing to put a new government in place,” said Zainab Mbaraka, a member of the village council.

In the meantime, the 2662 hectare Mihima village forest is being degraded as villagers have not only stopped conduct patrols to deal will illegal harvesting but some of them also collude with illegal traders. Many communal activities in the village have come to a halt.

The anger of the villagers on the interim government and the select committee can be well understood; by the time the conflict is resolved, the forest would be gone!
Omar Mwanja, a resident of Mihima, does not regret the disbandment of the village government and the natural resources committee.

“We are now set to get more income from our forest because we have learned new ways of managing it. With more money from natural resources, there is need to have leaders who are honest and have integrity so that they may enable the community to benefit from available natural resources. If we don’t have such leaders then these resources will enrich only a few people,” he said.