In Africa, Using Nature to Protect Nature

By Christina Nunez
June 12, 2020

Ecological Systems

Matt Brown ’92
Africa Regional Managing Director
Matt Brown ’92
Africa Regional Managing Director

Fresh out of Colby in 1992, Matt Brown joined the Peace Corps. His assignment—tending a tree nursery in Ghana—set him on a lifelong path. After two and a half years of volunteer service growing trees, Brown spent another nine months biking 3,000 miles across the African continent. He loved the diversity, the wonder of its massive ecosystems, the warm and resilient people.

“I just got Africa deeply in my blood,” Brown said. Today, he leads The Nature Conservancy’s conservation efforts across nine countries on the continent, with a focus on helping local communities protect and restore natural resources, including forests, rivers, and grasslands.

His work centers on the idea that we must nurture the green “infrastructure” we already have, such as storm-buffering coral reefs and forests that store carbon. The impact could be sizable: these natural climate solutions could deliver about a third of the carbon emissions cuts needed by 2030 to avoid warming beyond the internationally agreed 2°C target, according to The Nature Conservancy’s research.

Africa is a land of opportunity when it comes to this approach. Home to a fifth of the world’s tropical forests and one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, Lake Tanganyika, its resources are invaluable and under increasing pressure from a growing population of more than one billion—and also from climate change.

In northern Tanzania, for example, the Maasai people and their livestock depend on grassland increasingly sought for conversion to farms and settlements. In dry years, which are becoming more frequent as the planet warms, precious grazing land becomes a source of conflict and tension. “In the Western world, everybody has some financial savings,” Brown said. “If you’re a pastoralist living on the landscape in Tanzania, you’ve got your cattle—that’s your savings account.”

Working with partner organizations on the ground, The Nature Conservancy is helping various communities create grass banks where no farming, fencing, or settlement is allowed, keeping the land open for both livestock and wildlife. The organization provides guidance on using existing national laws to formalize boundaries, then offers the science and tools to manage that newly defined space for maximum benefit to both people and the environment.

Last year, the effort in northern Tanzania secured 370,000 acres across 51 easements. “We’re creating an ecological system that maintains its integrity by solving the immediate need of local people,” Brown said.

In Kenya’s Upper Tana watershed, his team is working to improve water security for more than two million people in Nairobi by preventing soil erosion from thousands of small farms upstream. By supporting better land management practices, such as improved soil testing and the addition of sediment retention ponds, they are both boosting prospects for farmers and reducing sediment flow into the river. The goal, he said, is to create more secure freshwater access by using natural solutions rather than building more dams and catchment ponds.

Other efforts in Africa include supporting better fisheries management and conserving forests. With every project, the challenge is to ensure the benefits can be scaled up and maintained with stable financing. “The international conservation field is littered with projects that have stopped the minute the funding stops,” Brown said. “We’re very focused on being able to walk away while sustaining tangible, lasting outcomes.”

Brown majored in biology at Colby, with fond memories of spending afternoons and weekends in the tide pools of coastal Maine for his schoolwork. A year abroad in Australia studying tropical ecology in the rain forests of Queensland got him interested in international work to protect the environment. After the Peace Corps, he earned a master’s degree in water resource management at Indiana University and worked as an environmental consultant before joining The Nature Conservancy in 2007, working in Tanzania for nine years.