14 Nov 2017

Sustainable use of papyrus saves wetlands and boosts income

Papyrus products developed by the Weaver Group © Enock Kawira
Papyrus products developed by the Weaver Group © Enock Kawira
By Chris Magero and Obaka Torto

The Mara Wetland in Tanzania is a swamp dominated by Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) which provides a vast range of ecosystem services. In 2017, Birdlife International through the Sustainable use of critical wetlands in the Lake Victoria Basin project, supported two local conservation groups, the North Mara and South Mara Water Users Association to establish two Weavers Groups (Marasibora and Kwisaro Weavers Groups) in an effort to advance their skills and knowledge in the development of papyrus products, which provides them with an alternative source of income.

Papyrus has been used for centuries in many communities and historically by the Egyptians for making paper. The plant is synonymous with wetlands and water bodies, dominating the fringes of shallow water transition zones.

The Mara Wetland like other wetlands, is an important source of natural resources and habitat to a variety of fauna and flora. A number of plant species can be found thriving, the major ones being Cyperus papyrus and Typha domingensis. The livelihood of the communities living around the wetland depends on various services provided by the wetland and the main social economic activities of the communities around the Mara Wetland include fishing and papyrus harvesting.

The majority of people involved in Papyrus harvesting around the Mara Wetland are women as they face the most difficulty of earning income in the community, owning neither livestock nor land for farming. Thus, papyrus harvesting provides one of the few sources of free accessible income to support their life and families. However, the fauna and flora in the Mara Wetlands face several threats from unsustainable land use practices such as illegal fishing and bush fires, leading to the massive destruction of the wetland’s biodiversity.

In order to protect the Mara Wetland's biodiversity and help the surrounding communities, BirdLife International is empowering the local community to employ better wetland management by empowering local communities to sustainably manage their wetland through the wise use of wetland resources and alternative agricultural and livelihood practices. Two local community groups have been formed and trained on how to improve their income through the production of papyrus products as an alternative livelihood source.

More papyrus made products © Enock Kawira

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Six women and six men from the Weavers Group representatives attended a six day papyrus products development training at Kwisaro, Mara region in Tanzania. They were trained to produce more than 26 different papyrus products including serviette holders, wine holders, sofas, shelves and wine-holder-racks. Sustainable harvesting of raw papyrus was also illustrated.. The knowledge and skills acquired during the training have now been shared and transferred to 30 members of their. This traning has also raised the awareness of wonders of papyrus to the larger community.

In conclusion, this project has enhanced the community understanding on the benefits of papyrus as a product and increased the effort of communities to sustainably use papyrus in the Mara Wetlands. The project has a great promise for generating income that will improve livelihoods, as well as providing an incentive to protect and sustain the biodiversity of the Mara wetlands.