I get by with a little help from my friends (of Usambara)
While studying Wildlife Conservation and Political Ecology in Northern Tanzania during my semester abroad, I spent about two weeks in the mountain city of Lushoto as a part of my Independent Study Project on Sustainability in Tourism. I traveled to Lushoto learn more about a grassroots community cultural sustainable tourism organization, Friends of Usambara, as a part of my project.
Lushoto is a small city located in the beautiful, biodiverse Usambara Mountains of the Eastern Arc Mountain Range. The Usambara Mountains are globally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot, with rainforests, numerous endemic species as well as a high density of flora and fauna. However, like many biodiversity hotspots, the Usambara Mountains are facing numerous increasing threats, mostly human-related and human-caused, including deforestation and climate change.
In a country that is home to Kilimanjaro, the plains of Serengeti, and the white beaches of Zanzibar, it can be difficult to stick out as a hot-spot tourist destination, yet it is a task that the dedicated people of the Friends of Usambara, knowing the potential their community and natural beauty of environment hold, are not daunted by. While doing my independent project, I was able to observe not only how naturally beautiful Lushoto and its surrounding region are, but also the creative and innovative work that Friends of Usambara were putting into making the Usambara Mountains a tourist destination in itself while still promoting environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability of the area.
One of the most awe-inspiring things about the work that Friends of the Usambara was how much responsibility the organization seemed to take in bettering their communities, protecting their natural environment and biodiversity, and promoting sustainable tourism. The executive director of Friends of Usambara, Yassin Madiwa, described the organization as being owned by the community and it was quite evident. The tour guides were well-qualified, knowledgeable local citizens who knew not only the popular tourist destinations in the area, but also the local culture, and community. The tours they offered seem to consciously embed different aspects of the local communities, whether it was exploring local cuisine or even promoting supporting local artisans. The income generated by the organization went back into the community by supporting various projects, including tree planting projects, tree nurseries, school construction, educating farmers, or even developing school curriculums that promote environmentalism.
Tanzania relies strongly on the economic income the country receives from the numerous tourists that flock to see the country’s immense natural beauty each year. However, in many ways, the tourism industry, particularly the eco-tourism industry, is destroying its own future and longevity and the country’s rich biodiversity with high-impact and unsustainable practices to meet the desires and demands of tourists, including gas-guzzling car congestion and large, lavish lodges in the national parks. In contrast, Friends of Usambara instead seeks to “[use] sustainable tourism to conserve the nature and the culture of the Usambara Mountains” by offering tourists everything from day hikes, agro-community cultural tours, cycling tours, to even multi-day trekking tours. Not only are these tours less impactful on the environment than many of the other destinations in Tanzania, they are also allowing the local tour guides to share and promote their culture and community in their own terms in a manner that isn’t exploitive of the locals.
While many perceive fighting against climate change and environmental protection as a burden, Friends of Usambara saw protecting the environment and biodiversity as a solution and a way to promote not only the growth of the tourism industry but also the economy and well-being of their community.
In one of the most impoverished countries in the world, Friend of Usambara chose to focus on what resources they did have and what they could control to help protect and promote their beautiful environment for tourists in a manner that did not diminish or harm their communities. All too often in the United States, Africans are portrayed in need of Western aid to help them develop, however, the work conducted by Friend of Usambara showed how just how capable and the agency this community has in finding long-term solutions to problems within their own community they weren’t too responsible for creating. This small organization can’t draft international agreements on climate change to help combat industrial carbon emissions, but they can educate local farmers about farming methods that will reduce soil erosion, implement a project to plant 2.5 million trees in a year, educate tourists, or start tree nurseries at local schools.
The time I spent with Friends of Usambara served as a reminder as to how important individual actors can be in the fight for the protection of the environment. Through the work they have done and are continuing to do, Friends of Usambara has served and educated, not only their own community, but also the tourists who come to the community who will, hopefully, leave with a better, more intimate understanding on environmental issues outside their own region, or even how the way they treat the environment can impact the lives of people a world away.
Friends of Usambara exemplify the responsibility individuals and each community, no matter how small, must take in the fight against climate change and in the protection of our environment. In a time where it can be so easy to become discouraged by the state of climate and environmental politics, Friends of Usambara remind us that we too have power in the fight against and the solution for climate change. By engaging communities, focusing on small, achievable goals with the resources available, without sacrificing the quality of the environment or economic gain, Friends of Usambara help foster a growing sustainability-focused tourism industry. The work, vision, and ambitions of Friends of Usambara in which they find solutions via their own agency serve as a model that individuals and communities around the world should aspire to emulate.
Johansson, S. G., P. Cunneyworth, N. Doggart, and R. Botterweg. “Biodiversity Surveys in the East Usambara Mountains: Preliminary Findings and Management Implications.” Journal of East African Natural History87, no. 1, 139-57. Accessed March 9, 2018. Nature Kenya/East African Natural History Society.
“Friends of Usambara.” Welcome to Friends of Usambara. Accessed March 9, 2018. http://usambaratravels.com/index.php.
 Johansson, S. G., P. Cunneyworth, N. Doggart, and R. Botterweg. “Biodiversity Surveys in the East Usambara Mountains: Preliminary Findings and Management Implications.” Journal of East African Natural History87, no. 1, 139-57. Accessed March 9, 2018. Nature Kenya/East African Natural History Society.
 “Friends of Usambara.” Welcome to Friends of Usambara. Accessed March 9, 2018. http://usambaratravels.com/index.php.