The Iraqw tribe in Tanzania are agriculturally-based rural people whose culture has for the most part remained unchanged throughout their long history, as well as into today. This lifestyle was evident during the homestay, where I saw little to no Western influence or modern amenities. A certain relationship between the people and the environment had also developed due to these traditions that were fairly healthy for both sides, both because of the practices in collecting and utilizing natural resources, as well as the scale of harvest.
However, recently there have been emerging sociocultural shifts within Iraqw, both due to internal and external pressures, that are now altering their interaction with the environment. Natural resource use was guided primarily by cultural principles up until colonial modernization, as well as economic and demographic changes through intermarriage, cultural exchange, and general market interaction with other tribes also causing changes. The landscape of the early 1900s and today now exhibits sharp contrasts (Lawi, 1999).
One important difference between the traditional Iraqw community and those of today is the presence and authority of elders.
Whilst in the past the elders were both in charge of the political and cultural spheres, now they have been largely relegated to only the cultural one. This is a result of both colonial rule and the current national government undermining their power, as well as the breaking away of the people from communal villages (Synder, 1997). My homestay was comprised of our mama’s family, as well as the homes of her husband’s parents and two of his sisters, in its own fairly isolated area.
Of particular note in the past was the command of elders in designating boundaries, of both the people in their environment from the outside, as well the internal social sphere from the natural sphere. This in a way worked to limit the spatial extent to which resources were exploited. With the advent of new technologies and transportation, as well as the dissolving of the political strength of the elders, this is no longer an obstacle. This has resulted in more widespread land degradation at a faster rate.
In addition, there was also the ritualistic aspect in which the land and people were in a symbiotic relationship. It was believed from a spiritual perspective that transgressions by people could negatively pollute the health of the land on which they all relied. Indirectly this resulted in a form of natural resources management. The elders, in the masay ritual specifically, granted natural resources rights within the community and placed responsibility for the resources under others (Synder, 1997). Now the situation is akin to the tragedy of the commons. Essentially the Iraqw have moved away from the collective cohesion of the tribe as a community, eliminating the cultural-political elements which helped monitor resource use.
Connected to this departure from older political and spiritual beliefs is the shift from their traditional religion to Christianity. This stemmed not only from a desire to embrace so-called ‘modernism’ but because they felt attached to the organization which, following colonization, had directly helped the local communities through the building of schools and other social institutions. This negatively impacted the environment because whereas their traditional religion placed a spiritual value on nature, Christianity teaches that the earth and its resources are for the consumption of humans. For example, certain trees such as figs or those that were very large were taboo to be cut down, but now any tree is suitable for firewood (Lawi, 1999). I observed that there were few trees, if any, on the property and even nearby the homestay, meaning they were cut indiscriminately for firewood. This also partly comes from the fact that there are fewer trees available in general because of increased populations and less sustainable harvesting practices.
Another aspect of socio-cultural change is the move from sustenance farming to farming also for profit. Interactions with other tribes and the introduction of marketplaces during the economic development of Tanzania facilitated this. Iraqw began to expand their agricultural production to supplement a new source of income. My homestay family for example had over 6 acres of farmland, several acres of which were dedicated to growing maize for selling at the market. This also has harbored environmentally unfriendly agricultural practices. Crop rotation is not practiced because only certain crops are designated as cash crops. This has led to increased soil erosion and overall land degradation.
Finally, there is the loss of indigenous knowledge which has modified the human-environment relationship. Traditionally the Iraqw people would not clear certain areas because many plants were used as either dye for clothing or medicinal purposes (Tewa, 2013). Most goods are now purchased from markets, medicine as well, in addition to hospitals being more prevalent. Now there is no incentive to maintain natural areas of vegetation. Most of the land my homestay family owned was cleared for buildings, farm plots, or allocated as grazing areas for their animals.
The Iraqw people are tied very closely to their local environment because they rely on it so great to satisfy the needs of daily life. Hence why it is so important to examine how they interact with natural resources, both in the past and now. Understanding the socio-cultural changes which they have undergone can help to mediate the environmental degradation currently happening on a local scale. It may also have implications for wider natural resource conservation.