Margherita Lala spent ten months living in Chololo Ecovillage in Tanzania exploring how this acclaimed experiment in climate adaptation is working for the people who live there.
In October 2016, as a second year PhD student, I arrived in the village of Chololo to start my ethnographic fieldwork. I participated in everyday life – cooking, cultivating crops, collecting water – while also trying to learn the language and grasp the villager’s ideas, attitudes, feelings, habits and expectations.
One of the reasons why I went to Chololo was that ‘Chololo Ecovillage’, a 32-month EU funded project on climate adaptation and mitigation, took place there between 2011 and 2014: it was then scaled up to three surrounding villages. The project tested ecological technologies and other ‘innovations’ in water, energy, agriculture, livestock and forestry. These included ‘improved’ seeds, ‘improved’ livestock, and ‘improved’ stoves. Chololo Ecovillage has been presented as a model of good practice for adaptation and mitigation to climate change, particularly in East Africa. I wanted to know how it was working a few years on.
The aim of my ethnographic work in Chololo was to investigate the following questions: What has been the impact of the introduction of technological ‘innovations’ to promote adaptation strategies? Why are some technologies adopted whereas others are not? Who within the ‘community’ benefits from these ‘innovations’?’ and, finally, when is it possible to claim that adaptation and mitigation strategies are just? In short, whose “green” is the ecovillage and its technological innovations?
Chololo gradually became my home. The village is around 40 km South-East of the political capital of Tanzania in the region of Dodoma, often described as the poorest in the country. It is in a semi-arid area and widely affected by increasing deforestation, soil erosion, droughts and flooding. Chololo was created during the villagization period in the 70s after the country’s independence. The great majority of Chololo inhabitants identify themselves as Wagogo, a semi-pastoralist group of Bantu origins. Livestock keeping plays an essential role for the inhabitants, although they mainly rely on subsistence agriculture, based on the cultivation of local varieties of Sorghum and Millet.
‘The secret formula of development’?
Villagers told me that there was initial enthusiasm for the Chololo Ecovillage project. Majinga, the one who brings gifts, was the name by which people in the village used to refer to one of the project's organisers. The yields in the first year, in which the rain came regularly and abundantly, were considerable and allowed participating households to improve their economic situation. Chololo was described as Kijiji cha mfano, a “model’ village” offering a “secret formula of development”.
However, by the time I arrived in October 2016, the situation was quite different. Some of the technologies introduced were simply not fit for the environment or not affordable and were abandoned at an early stage. The fish ponds, for example, were difficult to manage because of water scarcity, and because the villagers had no previous experience of fish farming techniques. While this could be considered part of the process of testing technologies in a new context, it does raise questions about the supposedly ‘bottom-up’ approach of the project.
Other technologies - ‘improved’ stoves and ‘improved’ bulls, for instance - were initially taken up but were not adopted in the long term. As time passed by and the rain did not come, food security was becoming a serious concern. So why were the climate change adaptation strategies barely perceivable in the village just a few years after the end of the project? Three elements of the Chololo formula deserve detailed attention.
Multidimensionality - dealing with interconnected interventions in water, agriculture, livestock, energy and forestry - has been seen as one of the major strengths of Chololo Ecovillage project. However, multidimensionality in Chololo played out in a rather complex way in practice.
Take reforestation. While describing their own conception of the ‘good life’, people in Chololo referred to water (both the rain and the underground water sources), as the essential resource in the village, perhaps not surprisingly in a semi-arid area. As it is common to say in Tanzania, Maji ni uhai na uhai ni maji – Water is life and life is water. Without water, reforestation can’t realistically work. Trees need to be irrigated regularly and this is not always possible when water is already scarce for people and livestock. At the local level it is important to have realistic expectations when prioritising interventions.
It’s also important to be aware of the wider political economic context in which the village exists. One of the interventions to reduce deforestation was introducing stoves which used less wood. But trees in Chololo are used mainly to produce charcoal that is sold in the nearby city of Dodoma. Chololo women don’t normally cut trees for their household needs but collect dry pieces of wood to fuel the stoves. If broader patterns of energy consumption at the national level are underplayed or ignored, and deforestation is depicted as a straightforwardly ‘local’ problem to be solved with a technical intervention, not much progress will be made in decreasing the rate of deforestation in Tanzania.
Participation and local knowledge
The project’s commitment to participation consisted of a preliminary climate vulnerability and capacity analysis, a series of village meetings, and a final evaluation of the different technologies introduced that involved 55 farmers. Participation, widely advocated at the international level, goes through a process of transformation during its implementation at the local scale.
At the initial stage, people in Chololo did not have the opportunity to decide which technologies were introduced, or to say if the chosen ‘improved’ technologies offered real solutions to poverty, water and food scarcity, or the loss of their forest. But also at a later stage villagers felt that they could not in fact participate in the implementation of adaptation strategies. In the village meetings only certain people with high social status were normally able to speak, and the people that tried to question some of the dynamics of the project (for instance the ‘equality’ of the distribution of some of the technologies) were dismissed as backward and ungrateful.
Lastly, without a constant process of engagement with local practices, it’s easy to ignore what already exists. Intercropping and cultivation with manure were presented as ‘innovations’ by the Chololo Ecovillage project but had in fact already been present in the village for a long time. The reason why some people were not using manure was that they did not own cows and could not afford to buy it. Intercropping practices had already been introduced in colonial times: this time, as before, they were adopted only by ‘well-off’ farmers because they require a lot of labor.
I came away from Chololo convinced that agroecological transformation cannot be reduced to the mere introduction of ‘eco-innovations’ at the ‘local’ level. The novel ‘green’ strategies which were promoted in Chololo were often not new, were not considered in a wider socio-economic context and were not aligned with the lives of most of its inhabitants. Their voice was ignored despite formal mechanisms of participation. Consequently, these strategies did not lead to a meaningful increase in the community’s ability to adapt to climate change. The crucial question thus remains: whose adaptation, if any, are we actually talking about?
A longer version of this blog was published on the Allegra Lab website.
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