Co-developing sustainable solutions to shared resource dilemmas in Maasai land

By Dr Anna Rabinovich

I am excited to join the vibrant and friendly School of Psychology at the University of Sussex as a Reader in Social Psychology and Sustainability.

My research ambition is to address the global challenge of cooperation around sustainable management of shared environmental resources by conducting impactful research that makes a real difference for stakeholder communities. It has led me to develop multiple interdisciplinary collaborations and to engage with diverse communities who face the shared resource management challenge across the world.

One of my recent projects, funded by the British Academy, has taken me to Northern Tanzania, which is home to Maasai, an iconic pastoralist tribe. One of the problems that Maasai pastoralists have been facing in recent decades is soil erosion on shared pasture land. Deep gullies make the land unsuitable for cattle grazing, threatening livelihoods of the population.

photo of deep gully on the Maasai farm land

Traditionally, cattle are the backbone of the Maasai economy: Cows and goats are sold to help cover the cost of housing, clothing, and school fees for children. They are also an integral part of cultural identity: “If you don’t have a cow, you are not recognized as a respected member of the community,” we were told by local elders. While cattle herds are vulnerable to soil erosion, they also play a role in the onset of this devastating process. Growing herds, together with shrinking of land available to Maasai people, restrictions on traditional mobility routes, and lack of effective grazing management can lead to pastures becoming depleted.

Most previous attempts at resolving this problem haven’t engaged with the social side of the issue. Much research tends to rely on the information deficit approach, which is based on the assumption that the problem is only there because of the lack of understanding and information. One thing this approach doesn’t account for is the gap between attitudes and intentions. People who face a problem may already know what needs to be done, but unwilling or unable to take action. To address this gap, it is important to pay attention to group dynamics, social norms, cultural values, and communication. In our project, we put local communities and social dynamics within them at the centre of everything we do.

photo of cow herd walking over dry earth in Maasai land

We designed several workshops with Maasai communities of the Monduli District, the area particularly affected by severe soil erosion. Our primary long-term aim was to strengthen community cohesion by providing space for participants to work together, to share existing knowledge – and to start building sustainable plans for the future. We made sure that people of all genders and age groups were equally represented at each of the workshops, because, similarly to any other climate-related problems, we can only win this fight against severe soil erosion if the whole community works on it together.

During the first set of workshops participants completed questionnaires, where they shared their individual opinions about soil erosion and attitudes to various types of action that could be taken to mitigate it. We collated that data and came back to share our findings with the participants. Some of those findings showed that many people believed that certain things, such as grazing practices, should be done differently, but never voiced their opinions in community discussions.

Having seen the results, community members started to realise that not only they can do things differently when dealing with soil erosion, but they can do those things together, and that would not contradict the group norm. So, in the next set of workshops, through group discussions, we started building explicit group norms consistent with sustainable land management practices that would help tackle soil erosion. It has become clear that immediate action is not only necessary, but is also desirable and approved by the community, because it is consistent with the Maasai ways of doing things. At this point participants would focus their group discussions on finding best ways to manage their land, acting as a community. The idea is that because these decisions are based on a local community norm and are coming from inside the group (rather than being imposed externally), they would lead to sustainable action.

photo of Maasai tribe members gathered round a table talking and looking at workshop materials

Indeed, several months later, noticeable changes have started taking place in the communities we worked with. Land management plans have been put in place in many villages, and local champions have started active work on promoting gully restoration and prevention initiatives. Many communities have agreed to allocate certain areas of shared land to grazing during a particular time of year only, which gives vegetation time to restore and prevents further soil erosion. A number of community planting initiatives have also started, including test plots for observing effects of planting and grazing restrictions on soil health. This is just a beginning of a long journey towards tackling soil erosion in Maasai land, and we’re hopeful to see how the community initiatives develop and support them into the future. We have been working closely with the local District council in Tanzania to ensure institutional support is in place to maintain impact.

The approach we’ve been using to co-develop sustainable solutions to shared land management can be used for other shared resource dilemmas as well. In this project, communities are working to protect the shared pasture land, but there are many other communal resources that require protection across the world, from fisheries and coasts to shared urban environments. If you have a shared resource challenge you would like to collaborate around, I would be happy to hear from you!

Further reading:

Rabinovich, A., Heath, S., Zhischenko, V., … Ndakidemi, P. (2020). Protecting the commons: Predictors of willingness to mitigate communal land degradation among Maasai pastoralists. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 72, 101504.

Rabinovich, A., Kelly, C., Wilson, G., Nasseri, M. et al. (2019). “We will change whether we want it or not”: Soil erosion in Maasai land as a social dilemma and a challenge to community resilience. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 66, 101365.

photo of Anna Rabinovich

Dr Anna Rabinovich recently joined the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex as Reader in Social Psychology and Sustainability.

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