Whole Village, Whole Planet

Just as challenges to human and ecosystem well-being are interconnected, so are solutions.

Photos: Katey Pelican, Christopher Polydoroff
The Whole Village Project aims to provide an in-depth understanding of the health, prosperity, education and natural resource consumption of rural Tanzanians. More >>

The images weave together like the warp and woof of a brightly colored Tanzanian khanga: Masai villagers carrying their crops and chickens on bicycles down pebble-pocked roads. A fly-covered boy sleeping on the dusty ground. Bony cattle corralled by thorn fences. Wildlife struggling to survive in the face of human-wrought change.

For Craig Packer and Katey Pelican, recipients of the Institute on the Environment Discovery Grants, the picture that emerges when the diverse strands of rural Tanzania intertwine is one of both challenge and hope. The University of Minnesota researchers aim to turn the tide on poverty and environmental destruction through a village-based, evaluation-grounded effort known as the Whole Village Project.

The project is the brainchild of Packer, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior who has spent the past three decades studying lions in Tanzania. He and Pelican are working to preserve natural resources by educating and empowering the people who literally eat, breathe and live them every day.

Home not only to wild places like the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro—but also to 38 million people who face alarmingly high rates of population growth, malnutrition, infant mortality and infectious disease—the East African nation is as economically impoverished as it is natural resources-rich.

With habitat increasingly threatened by human impacts, Packer has decided to extend his work, in his words, “to address the fundamental cause of environmental degradation … overpopulation and poverty.”

As a scientist, Packer appreciates the importance of evaluation in any attempt to make a change. Although aid programs abound in Tanzania, he says, nobody really knows what impacts they have.

His strategy: Measure health, prosperity, education and natural resource practices in 240 villages; empower villagers to make improvements; check back every two years to document changes; then share the results with local people so they can sustain any improvements.

Funding from the IonE grant, which was awarded earlier this year, will help Packer map land-use patterns to create a baseline against which to measure progress. “It will fill an important metric that we really have to have,” he says.

For Pelican, a veterinarian whose passion is conservation, the road to the Whole Village Project started, interestingly, with another kind of cat. After working for 10 years with the Smithsonian Institution helping Asian clouded leopards thrive, she realized that focusing on the animals alone was not going to do the job.

“I can save clouded leopards, but that doesn’t save the ecosystem,” she says. “If we want to save cute fuzzies, we have to feed people in a sustainable way.”

Now an assistant professor of veterinary population medicine, Pelican traveled to Tanzania with a study group last year. When she returned, she struck a plan to connect the rich and diverse human health, animal health and ecosystem health resources of the U of M with the needs of Tanzanians.

Her part of the project: Build an extension program at Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture, empower extension workers to promote sustainable agriculture and health at 50 Whole Village Project communities, and establish 10 to 15 of them as demonstration sites for healthy, prosperous and environmentally sound living.

Through the Whole Village Project, Packer, Pelican and their colleagues intend to create a proven model robust enough to move from whole villages to the whole world.

“[IonE was] asking us to address a grand challenge in the environment. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the big challenges,” Pelican says. “If we can provide sustainable food and water and maintain a healthy environment in a place like Tanzania where there is such a high poverty rate, then we can do it anywhere.”


MARY HOFF is a science writer specializing in natural resources, the environment, health and sustainability. A regular contributor to Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, she also has published in Science World and National Geographic Explorer, and has written numerous books for children on natural history and environmental topics.