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Studying Environmental Issues in the Tanzanian Context

Studying Environmental Issues in the Tanzanian Context October 15, 2015
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Sustainability is at the heart of Luther College professor Jon Jensen’s approach to environmental studies. So when he spent three weeks in northern Tanzania co-teaching a course last January, it was a chance for Jensen to examine sustainability in a much different cultural context than he usually works in.

Jon JensenJon Jensen

“It was absolutely fascinating, the conflicts and the tensions between conservation, primarily of large mammal wildlife, and the challenges that poses for the Maasai people, who have in many cases been moved off their traditional lands in the interests of preserving biodiversity,” he said.

That experience whet Jensen’s appetite to learn more, so he was ready jump at the opportunity to return to Tanzania for the fall 2016 semester as Visiting Faculty Director of the ACM Tanzania: Ecology & Human Origins program.

Although the ACM program has its home base in the city of Dar es Salaam, the students spend six weeks conducting field research for their practicum projects in and around Tarangire National Park, near the area where Jensen stayed before.

The Luther course, led by anthropology professor Lori Stanley and Jensen, was primarily an immersion into the culture of the Maasai, who live in northern Tanzania and traditionally have supported themselves by raising cattle.

“It was amazing to see the countryside, to meet and get to know some of the Maasai people there,” he said. “We spent about half our time camping, right on the edge of some of the bomas, which are the Maasai villages, getting a larger sense of the ecology of the place. I found Tanzania to be hospitable and welcoming and very stimulating intellectually. There were really interesting questions that engaged both the students and me.”

Jon Jensen with students and MaasaiJon Jensen and his class visiting with Maasai elders in northern Tanzania.

Photo courtesy of Jon Jensen

Jensen has led students on off-campus courses and programs in the Pacific Northwest and the Mediterranean nation of Malta, but being in Tanzania provided a prime example of the importance of context in understanding sustainability.

“So many people, in the U.S. anyway, tend to think of sustainability in terms of the vehicles we drive or that way we use electricity,” said Jensen. “But for the Maasai, particularly in this era of climate change, it’s much more about [questions such as], ‘What does this mean for my traditional grazing lands?’ Or, particularly in a period of drought, ‘How am I able to sustain my family and my community?’ I think it’s really eye-opening for the students to be able to see that perspective and to recognize how different the context is from what we’re used to.”

“I think it’s really eye-opening for the students to be able to see [the Maasai] perspective and to recognize how different the context is from what we’re used to.”

As visiting faculty director of the ACM program, Jensen will lead both the academic and experiential aspects of the program. Students take three classes — on Kiswahili language, human evolution, and ecology — taught by specialist faculty at the University of Dar es Salaam.

The centerpiece of the program is the six-week field experience, with student-designed projects that draw upon Tanzania’s world-renowned anthropological, paleoanthropological, and ecological resources. Jensen will teach the Research Design and Methods course and guide students through the process of outlining and refining their proposed projects and then devising a research plan.

The program regularly attracts students from a variety of majors, and Jensen sees sustainability as a theme that can cross disciplinary backgrounds and perspectives. Some students will be approaching their research from a natural science and ecology point of view, he noted, while others will be looking at the issues through anthropological and other social science lenses.

At an archaeology field siteStudents in the fall 2014 Tanzania Program working at an archeaology field site.

Photo courtesy of Meghan Caves

“As a philosopher who works in environmental studies and whose research focuses on education for sustainable development, my background really is coming from the humanities,” said Jensen. “I focus much more on the values and ethics dimension of environmental issues. Most of my classes [at Luther] involve at least some science in them, always dealing with social issues and social policy, and so I feel comfortable stretching into a wide range of areas that deal with the relationship between humans and the environment.”

While much of the emphasis during the semester will be on preparing for the fieldwork portion, Jensen said he’s also excited about living in a major city like Dar es Salaam.

“Being in the city offers different ways to learn about some of the challenges [of sustainable development in Tanzania], as well as to see what urban life in Eastern Africa is like,” he said. “There is a large Muslim population, and I’m hoping we can use some of our time in Dar es Salaam to learn about that culture and perspective. We’ll also be along the Indian Ocean, and for many students from the Midwest, that will be an opportunity to experience living in a coastal area.”

“Having run this program for a long time, ACM has great contacts and great support in Tanzania, and I will lean on people there in thinking about opportunities for the students,” said Jensen. “I’m really looking forward to exploring the city and the region with the students.”


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