About Coastal East Africa

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The shore on Mafia Island in Tanzania
© John Kabubu

A coastline supporting over 20 million people

Coastal East Africa including Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique shares a coastline and a myriad of essential and key natural resources, forests and a variety of ecosystems which support rich biodiversity. Unfortunately, for all its natural resources, Coastal East Africa is seen to have some of the highest rates of poverty in the world.
In 2009, the World Bank reported that the annual per capital incomes in Mozambique and Tanzania were US$ 365 and 400 respectively with Kenya at a higher US$ 770. Currently, more than 20 million people live along the Coastal East Africa shoreline and this number is expected to double before 2030. Their survival is dependant on the regions natural resources which are healthy forests, rivers, mangroves, reefs and oceans.

Over the past ten years, global demand for the region’s abundant and often undervalued natural resources led by Europe, Asia and particularly China has resulted in trade that is not only unsustainable but sometimes also illegal. Coastal East African countries are therefore losing their valuable natural assets including much needed revenue that could help tackle poverty. They are losing valuable natural assets to Europe, Asia and China, mainly due to insufficient resources to effectively control trade. Moreover, it is the poorest communities who suffer the most when these resources are degraded or destroyed.

These problems are having a regional knock-on effect. For example, timber production in Tanzania grew by an astounding 1,400 per cent between 1997 and 2005, with most of the raw hardwood being exported to China. Between 2004 and 2005, it is estimated that the country lost US $ 58 million due to illegal trade. As soon as Tanzania took action to halt the free-for-all, trade spiked in neighboring Mozambique – underscoring why it is so important for the Coastal East African countries to work together and address such common concerns.

Forest conversion has also wreaked havoc on the region’s biodiversity. “Slash and burn” clearing has destroyed huge tracks of ancient coastal forest and increased human-wildlife conflict. This situation is being exacerbated by unregulated investment in commercial agriculture throughout the coastal region. Recognizing the importance of food security and potential for development, WWF is calling for a more integrated policy approach to ensure that land and water intensive investments are more sustainable and benefit the host country.

Off the coast, foreign fishing vessels from Asia and Europe exploit the countries’ rich fisheries at the expense of artisanal fishermen. While these foreign fleets are often granted access by the Coastal East African governments, there is little or no capacity to monitor their catch or the impacts that overfishing is having on the local coastal communities and the marine environment.

Permeating all of these challenges is the impact of global climate change, which is increasingly evident in the region. Parts of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique are already suffering from unpredictable rainfall, persistent drought and extreme weather events. Traditional livelihoods and coping strategies are being severely affected and the situation is expected to get worse as climate models predict increased temperatures and incidents of floods, drought, cyclones and coastal erosion.

The reality is that the combination of unsustainable management and uncoordinated externally driven resource extraction, exacerbated by climate change, threatens to destabilize the region’s development and natural resource base.

A snapshot of the challenges and opportunities

The region is facing unprecedented challenges and opportunities as a result of increasing global competition for its natural resources, as well as huge interest from foreign investors in agriculture, energy, fisheries, forestry, infrastructure, mining, telecoms and trade in general. Tanzania and Mozambique, for instance, are among those sub-Saharan African countries that have enjoyed long-term economic growth rates that match or even exceed those of the Asian tigers. Kenya and Tanzania have become two of the first member countries of the new East Africa Common Market, which is expected to boost cross-border trade, investment and employment.

Politically, these countries are under immense pressure to reduce their high poverty rates and provide more services to their rapidly expanding populations. More than 20 million people live along the coast in these three countries, and this figure is expected to double by 2030. Yet, despite these demands, all three countries have demonstrated interest in embracing sustainable development options. In Kenya, model energy and forest projects have recently received international attention. In Tanzania, a bold moratorium on new investments for bio fuels was introduced last year; and, in Mozambique, the country’s economically important prawn fishery is undergoing a rigorous assessment to meet the Marine Stewardship Council’s eco-friendly certification standards.

All this represents an enormous challenge to the governments involved, not least with respect to the management of these investment forces in a way that safeguards the region’s biodiversity and protects people’s livelihoods.
A challenge will be to convince people that money donated or invested in Coastal East Africa concretely helps conservation, despite the ongoing challenges.  

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