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Tanzanian botanist honoured for reforestation efforts

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Tanzanian botanist honoured for reforestation efforts

In northern Tanzania, under the leadership of 2002 Rolex Associate Laureate Sebastian Chuwa, people are creating a sustainable future for themselves through a massive, informal reforestation project that will preserve the natural environment and help ensure that the communities have food, shelter and income. The 54-year-old botanist has, since 1992, spearheaded planting and environmental education programmes in northern Tanzania. The millionth tree in his project was planted during the 2004 Kilimanjaro Environmental Day celebrations.

“Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, with per capita income for 2004 estimated at US$290," Chuwa explains. "Yet our population is growing at the rate of 3 per cent per year. The pressures created by a poor, expanding population are overtaxing Tanzania’s already fragile ecosystem where 90 per cent of the people survive through subsistence farming.” The resulting land clearing, and use of pesticides and chemicals, causes a cycle of soil deterioration that makes it difficult for people to support themselves.

Chuwa’s program relies on Tanzania’s national tree, the African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) - called mpingo in Swahili, which once dotted the entire African dry savannah. Today, less than three million remain, mostly in Tanzania and Mozambique, and in Tanzania alone, an estimated 20,000 mpingo – which require 70 to 100 years to reach maturity – are harvested annually for commercial purposes.

The mpingo’s dense, oily and finely textured wood is used by southern Tanzania’s Makonde carvers to create statues, and is one of the world’s most valuable commercial timbers, selling for between $15,000 and $18,000 per cubic metre. Its nitrogen-fixing roots add nutrients to soil, and it helps feed large wildlife. It also is known as the “tree of music” because many musicians and instrument makers believe there is no substitute for a woodwind instrument made of mpingo.

“The people of Tanzania want to plant mpingo after learning that it is good for their economic future,” Chuwa says. “In fact, it is now considered lucky if you plant a mpingo on your farm. Townspeople plant the seedlings for shade and windbreaks, while farmers inter-plant mpingo trees in their cropland and use them as living fences.”

Two Texan woodturners, James Harris and Bette Stockbauer, worked with Chuwa to found the African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP) after hearing about his work through a documentary film. “ABCP is about helping people to empower themselves,” says Stockbauer. “The ABCP is solely involved with Sebastian's work, helping the people to uplift themselves by planting and protecting the mpingo and other trees in their area. All seedlings are grown from seeds collected in Tanzania, either by Sebastian or by the groups he works with after he has taught them about seed-collection practices and proper germination techniques.”

Realizing that environmental efforts succeed only if people understand the issues, Chuwa focuses on environmental education. Since 1992, he has taught youth about conservation through 58 Malihai (“living wealth” in Swahili) clubs, part of a national organisation to facilitate sport and education in conservation, and works with Dr. Jane Goodall’s youth conservation foundation, Roots and Shoots. His work inspired the founding of women’s tree-planting groups that also build energy-efficient wood stoves to reduce the impact of gathering fuel.

In February 2002. the Olympic Committee honoured Chuwa’s conservation efforts by presenting him with the Spirit of the Land Award in Salt Lake City, USA. This year, the US-based National Arbor Day Foundation presented Chuwa with the J. Sterling Morton Award during the 2007 National Arbor Day Awards - an award that honours the man who began the tree-planting celebrations in the USA in 1872.

This story is adapted from an article entitled Planting the Future, written by Alexa Schoof Marketos, and published in the Journal of the Rolex Awards.


For other stories about tree-planting activities, see:

Planting hope for the future: Kenya's Green Belt Movement

Replanting olive trees in Palestine symbolizes hope for a peaceful future

Re-establishing forest ecosystem in Uganda fights climate change

People around world meet challenge to plant a billion trees in one year

Cooperation helps nomads fight desertification in Mauritania

More than 100,000 Tanzanian homes built with bricks fired by agricultural waste

Click a day plants 16 million trees in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forest


For other stories about forests, see:

Briquettes provide energy, let forests regenerate in Malawi

Click a day plants 16 million trees in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forest

Community residents protect Malaysia’s oldest forest reserve

Guerrilla tourism helps protect remote mountain forest in El Salvador

Madagascar plan to reduce deforestation achieves excellent results

Pioneering deal offers new hope for preserving tropical forests, global climate, local jobs

Re-establishing forest ecosystem in Uganda fights climate change

Reforesting desolate Colombian savannah shows sustainability can be created anywhere

Tanzanian blacksmiths pass on skills, creating jobs and saving forests

Abdul’s dream of restoring mangrove forest in Malaysia takes root in villages

Traditional Mexican coffee farms could help regenerate forest

World’s first solar cooker village helps cut deforestation in Somalia

Local forest mapping in Congo Basin may help villagers protect livelihoods

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