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Pangolins, Science and Scapegoats

Environmental Narratives and Conflicts in the

Great Ruaha Catchment, Tanzania

Martin T. Walsh


paper presented to
the workshop on Trees, Rain and Politics in Africa:
The Dynamics and Politics of Climatic and Environmental Change,
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford,
29 September – 1 October 2004

Dr. Martin T. Walsh,

Department of Social Anthropology,
University of Cambridge,
Free School Lane,
CB2 3RF,
Pangolins, Science and Scapegoats: Environmental Narratives
and Conflicts in the Great Ruaha Catchment, Tanzania

Martin T. Walsh
Department of Social Anthropology
University of Cambridge

Pangolins and Science

In many villages in south-central Tanzania encounters with Ground Pangolins (Manis
temmincki) are treated as highly auspicious events. In some places these rarely seen
creatures take centre stage in communal rituals in which they are asked to divine the
future. Their behaviour in these and other contexts is closely observed, interpreted
and speculated upon by ritual specialists and the general public. It is used to predict
and with hindsight explain major environmental and political episodes (floods,
drought, famine, warfare) as well as more modest incidents in the life of the
community. Failure to respect the ritual status of pangolins (for example when they
are killed for their scales) or failure of the ritual process itself (which often happens
when they escape from captivity) are also analysed within the same interpretive
framework, and used retrospectively both to explain and lay the blame for misfortune
(Walsh 1995/96; In press).

There is a long tradition in anthropology and a shorter one in science studies of

comparing and contrasting ideas like these with the practice of ‘science’. Many social
scientists would now argue that the gap between science and everything else (religion,
magic, pseudoscience) is not as wide as has often been assumed. Local knowledge
and practice may be no more tradition-bound and ‘closed’ to change than the
paradigms and procedures of science. This is certainly the case with pangolin
prediction and retrodiction in the polyethnic villages along the Great Ruaha River,
where people have conflicting ideas about the use of these animals. On the other hand
science can be just as politically motivated and manipulated as any other social
enterprise. Like the followers of pangolin prophecy, the practitioners and proponents
of science are not averse to apportioning blame in its name. This can be illustrated by
the conflicting environmental narratives that have been used to explain the recent
transformation of the Great Ruaha into a seasonal river. These narratives and their
motivations and consequences are the subject of this paper.*

Scapegoats and Victims

The Great Ruaha River has its source in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania and a
number of tributaries that merge in the seasonal and permanent wetlands of Usangu.
The Great Ruaha flows out of the perennial swamp and through part of Ruaha
National Park before turning towards the Mtera Reservoir, which stores water for the
generation of hydroelectric power at Mtera and Kidatu, further downstream. In
December 1993 the Great Ruaha below Usangu stopped flowing for about three

The sections which follow are based largely on information gathered during work as a development
consultant in Mbarali and Iringa districts between 1995 and 2003. Some of the relevant documentation
is available on the SMUWC and RIPARWIN websites (see references at end).

weeks, the first time that this had happened in living memory. In the decade since
then it has in effect become a seasonal river, without water for up to three months
every dry season, and leading one local interest group to dub it “The Not So Great
Ruaha” (Fox et al. 2000).

This became a matter of national concern in 1995 when electricity rationing in Dar es
Salaam and Zanzibar was blamed by TANESCO (the Tanzania Electric Supply
Company) on the low level of the reservoir at Mtera, which was blamed in turn on
reduced flows in the Great Ruaha and ultimately on the impacts of resource use in
Usangu and the surrounding highlands. There were a number of weak links, however,
in this chain of blame. Whatever was happening to the river, the total volume of
water entering the reservoir had not significantly changed. TANESCO staff have
since intimated that the use of outdated operating procedures and poor management of
the storage capacity at Mtera were the real reason behind the national power cuts.
Rather than admit this, it was easier at the time to blame the river and upstream users.

Once the spotlight was turned on the river, then other existing environmental
narratives came into play. The main candidates for blame included the expansion of
agriculture and deforestation in the upper catchment; the expansion of irrigated rice
cultivation and especially of large state-owned schemes in Usangu; and the
destructive practices of livestock keepers in and around the wetlands downstream of
the rice farms. In the mid-1990s various government and other agencies developed
different theories of the Great Ruaha problem which combined these and other factors,
and academics also entered the fray (Kikula et al. 1996). The most widely held
theory blamed immigrant Sukuma agropastoralists for the damage, alleging that by
cutting down the surrounding woodland and grazing their numerous cattle in the heart
of the Usangu wetlands they were progressively desiccating the perennial swamp and
therefore the river which flowed from it.

Sukuma and other livestock keepers from northern Tanzania were readymade
scapegoats (cf. Brockington 2001). Their migration to and settlement in Usangu had
long been highlighted as a problem (Hazlewood and Livingstone 1978) and by 1997
the regional administration in Mbeya had drawn up proposals for the
“Botswanization” of livestock production there including extensive destocking
(Walsh et al. 1997). These proposals meshed with others emanating from the Mbeya
Regional Game Office and Ruaha National Park which recommended the creation of
a game reserve to protect the core of the Usangu wetlands and also the southern
boundary of the park. The district administration in Mbarali was also in favour of this
idea, which would make it possible to exclude livestock keepers and others from the
protected area. After the gazettement of the Usangu Game Reserve in 1998 all of the
residents were removed from within its boundaries and operations have since been
conducted to forcibly remove cattle herders, fishermen and others deemed to be
trespassing there. The biggest winners have been a Baluchi-owned tourist hunting
company in Usangu which has gained exclusive access to the rich hunting grounds of
Usangu together with a neighbouring area which was previously under community
management (Walsh 2001).

Science and Pseudoscience

Meanwhile the interest of different donors had been aroused, including the World
Bank and the U.K. government. The latter proposed an initiative that would

contribute to the World Bank-funded River Basin Management and Smallholder
Irrigation Improvement Project (RBMSIIP, 1996-), which works throughout the Rufiji
and Pangani River Basins. The outcome was a DFID-funded project, SMUWC
(Sustainable Management of the Usangu Wetland and its Catchment, 1998-2002),
followed by the DFID/IWMI-funded RIPARWIN (Raising Irrigation Productivity and
Releasing Water for Intersectoral Needs, 2001-). Prominent among other projects
now tackling the same and/or related issues is the WWF-funded Ruaha Water
Programme (2001-).

When SMUWC was first being planned, it was clear that Sukuma and other livestock
keepers were being unfairly blamed for the Great Ruaha problem. Whatever
ecological damage cattle keeping and related activities might cause, these could not
be invoked to explain the hydrological changes observed downstream. From the
evidence then available, it seemed more likely that the expansion of irrigated rice
cultivation in Usangu was the root cause of the problem (Walsh et al. 1997). This and
other hypotheses were subsequently scrutinized in considerable detail by consultants
working for SMUWC. They concluded that the use of water for irrigation was indeed
the main cause of the river’s increasing seasonality, in particular abstractions made
during the dry season by smallholders who were extending the growing season for
rice and other crops.

Despite the apparent thoroughness of SMUWC’s research, the district administration,

local government and a number of other institutions working in Usangu were unable
to accept the flip side of this conclusion, that overstocking and other stigmatized
activities were not a significant part of the problem. Ever since the colonial period
government had been recommending the expansion of irrigated rice cultivation in
Usangu, and the most recent development plan even suggested that potential rice
farmers from elsewhere should be given assistance to move there (Hazlewood and
Livingstone 1978). However, while many of SMUWC’s would-be partners could
accept that this unqualified optimism might need adjusting, they found it very difficult
to set aside existing environmental narratives about the degradation caused by
overstocking and deforestation.

Their reluctance to embrace the SMUWC worldview was amply demonstrated during
a workshop held in Mbeya in June 1999 to familiarize stakeholders with the project
and discuss its progress and direction (SMUWC 1999). The statement by one
SMUWC consultant that scientific studies indicated that deforestation in the upper
catchment was likely to increase rather than reduce flows in the Great Ruaha created
an uproar and was widely and negatively reported in the national press. Throughout
the life of SMUWC the Mbarali District Commissioner and other key officials
doggedly refused to accept the results of the project’s aerial surveys of livestock,
which showed the presence of far fewer cattle in Usangu than the administration had
always estimated. Relations with some institutions - the Wildlife Division and
Usangu Game Reserve was one example - remained strained through to the end of the
project, and there was evident delight in some quarters when SMUWC finally came to
an end and the consultants packed their bags.

The same scepticism is also reported to have affected RIPARWIN, SMUWC’s

successor, though local officials are now more aware of alternative viewpoints than
they once were. Lankford et al. (2004) argue that widespread refusal to accept the

projects’ principal conclusions was (and by implication still is) due to a combination
of three factors: (1) the existence of “highly entrenched views” that were “based on
quasi-scientific reasoning”; (2) that the projects, “in acknowledging their own
uncertainty, were not assertive enough in ascribing causation to the various processes
of change”; and (3) because “policy-uptake was not sufficiently managed by the
scientists involved”. They conclude that this kind of complexity is unavoidable, and
that scientists are therefore obliged “to take a more active role in sensitively managing
the advice-to-policy process” in order to improve integrated water resources

The original purpose of SMUWC was to develop “Local capacity to manage the
Usangu wetland and its catchment sustainably, for the social, economic and
environmental benefit of local communities (men and women) and downstream water
users” (GoT/DFID 1998). By the time it actually began it had been turned into a
research-driven project in which technical consultancies and deliberations among
experts seemed to take priority over other forms of engagement: this, at least, was
how it was widely perceived. The research agenda dominated SMUWC until its later
stages, when something like the “action research” and “action policy-advising” that
Lankford et al. (2004) recommend came to the fore. By this time it was too late and
attitudes to the project had already hardened. It was telling that many of the people
who had offered most resistance to SMUWC responded very positively to the WWF-
Tanzania initiative and its formulation in a workshop that fostered an open exchange
of views (WWF 2001).

Narratives and Conflicts

In some respects SMUWC was trapped by the scientific narrative in which it was
remade: the methodological prescription which privileges research over action and
demands hard boundaries between them, just as it does between science and
pseudoscience. Many research-oriented projects fall into this trap, denigrating the
allegedly pseudoscientific narratives around them while underestimating their power
and persistence. SMUWC’s detractors questioned the project’s scientific credentials
and each side ended up blaming the other for failing to consider that it might be
wrong. The SMUWC Project may have identified the main causes of the Great Ruaha
problem, but it failed to persuade important local stakeholders or secure agreement on
how to translate its research results into action. Instead the project became embroiled
in conflict over environmental narratives, adding to the existing resource conflicts in
Usangu that it was supposed to help solve.

In the long run this may prove to be no more than a blip in the development of a new
dominant narrative. It is equally possible that current hypotheses about the seasonal
death of the Great Ruaha River will be challenged by future observations and theories:
today’s science might well become tomorrow’s pseudoscience. Recalling the way in
which pangolin predictions are interpreted after the event, it is perhaps too early to
say how this particular interpretive conflict will play out. Nor do we know what
pangolins themselves might make of it. Maybe one day a pangolin will pronounce -
or be remembered as having pronounced - on the state of “The Not So Great Ruaha”.
Unfortunately, because much of the river’s course has now been incorporated within
protected areas that are inaccessible to ordinary villagers, this may never happen. But
I wouldn’t like to bet on it.

Brockington, D. 2001. ‘Communal Property and Degradation Narratives: Debating the
Sukuma Immigration into Rukwa Region, Tanzania’, Cahiers d’Afrique, 20: 1-22.
Fox, P., Stolberger, S. and Fox, G. 2000. The Not So Great Ruaha River: We Need Your Help,
document (comprising three open letters) addressed to the Natural Resources Adviser,
DFID Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, and copied to the President of Tanzania, the U.K.
Secretary of State for International Development and others. November 2000.
GoT/DFID 1998. Sustainable Management of the Usangu Wetland and its Catchment
(SMUWC): Project Memorandum, Ministry of Water, Government of Tanzania, and
Department for International Development, Eastern Africa. February 1998.
Hazlewood, A. and Livingstone, I. 1978. The Development Potential of the Usangu Plains of
Tanzania (Volumes 1-3). London: Commonwealth Secretariat.
Kikula, I. S., Charnley, S., Yanda, P. 1996. Ecological Changes in the Usangu Plains and
Their Implications on the Down Stream Flow of the Great Ruaha River in Tanzania,
Research Report No. 99 (New Series), Institute of Resource Assessment, University of Dar
es Salaam.
Lankford, B., van Koppen, B., Franks, T. and Mahoo, H. 2004. ‘Entrenched Views or
Insufficient Science? Contested Causes and Solutions of Water Allocation; Insights from
the Great Ruaha River Basin, Tanzania’, Agricultural Water Management, 69: 135-153.
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[consulted September 2004].
SMUWC 1999. Managing Water Resources in the Usangu Catchment: Workshop
Proceedings, SMUWC Project, Rujewa, June 1999.
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Walsh, M. T. 1995/96. ‘The Ritual Sacrifice of Pangolins among the Sangu of South-west
Tanzania’, Bulletin of the International Committee on Urgent Anthropological and
Ethnological Research, 37/38: 155-170.
Walsh, M. T. 2001. ‘The Development of Community Wildlife Management in Tanzania:
Lessons from the Ruaha Ecosystem’, in CAWM (ed.) African Wildlife Management in the
New Millennium: Conference Proceedings (Volume 2). Mweka: College of African
Wildlife Management. 1-18. Available online at htttp://www.mbomipa.info/
Walsh, M. T. In press. ‘Symbol, Ritual and Difference: Disagreements about the Significance
and Use of Pangolins in the Great Ruaha Valley, Tanzania’, in E. Dounias, E. Motte-Florac,
M. Mesnil and M. Dunham (eds.) Actes du colloque international sur le symbolisme des
animaux: l’animal “clef de voûte” dans la tradition orale et les interactions homme-nature.
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and its Catchment (SMUWC): Draft Project Memorandum, first draft prepared for the
British Development Division in Eastern Africa (BDDEA), Nairobi. March 1997.
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Programme, WWF-Tanzania Programme Office, Mbeya, 3-6 December 2001.

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