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Sebastian Chuwa, Champion of The Kilimanjaro Forests

Tanzania is at the vortex of the African tourist industry, positioned equidistant from everywhere, and packed with just about everything that anyone needs to see of Africa in a compact fortnight’s worth of travel.

The integrity and standards of preservation of Tanzania’s national parks are almost unique in Africa, and with iconic names like Serengeti and Ngorongoro to pull in the crowds, the crowds come. The petit Kilimanjaro International Airport daily disgorges hundreds of visitors, each processed and divided up among the dozens of tour busses and safari Landcruisers lining up in the parking lot under the spreading red flamboyant trees. It is an industry that handles nearly 400 000 visitors a year, a major contributor to the Tanzania economy, and a significant employer in a conspicuously challenged corner of the world.


    Ebony And Ivory

The Tanzania tourist industry however has a soft underbelly. Visitors may take heart from the high standards of resource management in all the national parks, but still, at such places as Oldonyo Orok Curio Market situated just outside Arusha, scores of otherwise wise and salient folk from the liberated west linger among row upon row of carved artifacts made from the iconic local ebony wood. Colossal quantities of this precious resource are purchased and shipped abroad daily, with apparently not the slightest inkling of how this impacts the environment that each person has paid so much to visit.

The fate of African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), known locally as Mpingo, is just a tiny symptom of a vast global disease of resource abuse, but it is bitterly ironic that it is from the heartland of enviro-consciousness that the main culprits in this crime are drawn. With powerful education applied in all aspects of the rational west towards the conservation of the environment, it is astonishing how easily these lessons are forgotten when they come to be applied. Oldonyo Orok sells a wide selection of items of cultural and curio interest, and yet two thirds of the shop floor is dominated by blackwood, with prominent signs offering worldwide shipping, suggesting that this is fate of most of it.

Speak to any shop assistant or a curio seller on the side of the road and all will either claim to have ‘license’ to harvest Blackwood, or that what is harvested is ‘replanted’. Rarely are these claims true, but they are nonetheless all it usually takes to make those few tourists who care hand over their money. In fact very few licenses are issued to harvest and utilize African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), known locally as Mpingo, and certainly no program motivated by the artists themselves exists to institute the replanting of a tree that can take more than a generation to reach a stage of any sort of commercial viability.

    African Blackwood

Mpingo is one of the most recognizable of all wood species to the layman, categorized usually under the name ebony, an umbrella term it shares with other woods of a similarly dense, black and highly ornamental form. It appears most commonly on the flutes of bagpipes, and other woodwind instruments, as well as on the black keys of some pianos, and in many other decorative and functional applications. Its value lies mainly in its qualities of dense composition and beautiful black patina, both of which allow it to be easily carved or turned, and then polished to an immaculate finish.

The tradition of carving Mpingo for implements, fetish and decoration dates back to antiquity, and traditionally was the preserve of the Makonde people of the border region between Tanzania and Mozambique. With the concentration of tourist markets in northern and coastal Tanzania, many Makonde woodcarvers have migrated north with the result that their sculptural style has tended to become more closely associated with Tanzania than Mozambique, and with their main subject matter evolving into popular themes of wildlife and Masai cultural iconography.

    The Future of Mpingo

While obviously if each tourist that visits Tanzania removes an average of a kilo of this wood each year, then it will not be long before it disappears altogether; but it is also true that each kilo that is sold adds about US$20 of tax fee revenue into the informal economy. Take this away and large number of people in and around the northern circuit will be without an income. Creative conservation measures are required here, but creativity in this regard is not a common feature in Africa.

Surprising therefore it is that in a quiet house along the congested road to Machame lives an unassuming man who stands at the forefront of the hardwoods conservation movement in this vulnerable region, and although modestly supported by a few outside organizations, he has almost single handedly taken on the responsibility of ensuring the viability of the beautiful African Blackwood reserves into the future.

    Sebastian Chuwa

Sebastian Chuwa began the serious advocacy of woodland and forest conservation in the district of Kilimanjaro in 1991, after his return form study abroad, during which time he worked, taught and studied at the Kew Botanical Gardens in London, and prior to that he worked for many years in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in the field of conservation. Sebastian still lives in the house built by his father, a prominent local herbalist who inspired his son with a basic sense of how the forest lives and functions, and how its integrity impacts the lives and livelihoods of many who exploit it directly, and many, many more who live downstream.

Sebastian is the driving force behind two local projects, the first is perhaps the flagship outreach, the African Blackwood Conservation Project, and the second a more personal crusade to halt the decline of the Kilimanjaro Forest itself.

    The African Blackwood Conservation Project

The two project are linked broadly under the umbrella of forest conservation, but the Blackwoods Conservation Project has a more international flavor, being partly the brainchild of Texan decorative wood turner James Harris, who in partnership with Sebastian started the project in 1996. The technical know-how and local energy, however, is wholly local, and is not focused on the good work of Sebastian Chuwa alone.

Sebastian began his work in the protection of Mpingo during a period of work in Tanga, a coastal region of Tanzania close to the border with Kenya, but on his return to Moshi in 1997 he was welcomed by local community leaders who gave him a plot of land in exchange for the promise of Mpingo saplings to replant in the neighborhood. Now, less than a decade later, the Blackwood Conservation Project nursery, situated about 7km south of Moshi, at the end of a rough bush track in a zone of irrigated market gardening, is a thriving tree nursery. Here rows of the inconspicuous but iconic trees are planted out under shade where they wait for a patch of African soil somewhere in the lowland bush to contribute to the regeneration.

    The Kilimanjaro Forest

This is the public work that Sebastian does. Somewhat more behind the scenes is his community work on behalf of the Kilimanjaro forest, that green cloak of verdant cover that gives the great mountain so much of its mystique. The forests of Kilimanjaro have been under threat for a long time. Early travelers through the region wrote of the difficulties and irritation of moving through a blanket of canopied forest stretching mile upon mile in every direction. Pockets of community life existed here and there, pockets that were expanded with the development of a colonial economy, and the introduction of cash crops like coffee and bananas. Nowadays all the usual maladies of over-exploitation affect the Kilimanjaro forest, which has now diminished to an almost remnant fringe of old growth pressed upwards by the crush of humanity, and downwards by the drying of the environment and the spread of the high desert.

It might be the preservation of the Mpingo that gets the funding, but it is easy to get the sense in conversation with Sebastian that it is the preservation of the forest that is the work of his passion. The ghost of his father, a man of spiritual substance for whom the diversity of this living, forming structure was both his livelihood and his art form, is fundamental to the journey that Sebastian takes today. The highland forests of Africa are places of contest and emotion, and of differing and at times contradictory objectives. Sebastian’s acts a bridge in this regard, speaking on behalf of the community to conservation agencies that would like to limit non-fee paying human access into the forest altogether, and behalf of conservation agencies to the communities for whom the forest has been a resource and source of spiritual and temporal support for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

The threat to the forest was recently deemed sufficiently serious for the boundaries of the National Park to be extended over all of what had previously been under local government management. This, as Sebastian observes, does not stop people using the resources of the forest, it simply means that now they do it illegally. It has also driven a wedge between the interests of one group and the interests of another.

Sebastian is the first to recognize the right of the community to utilize its environment. His answer to the prevailing conundrum of community verses ecology is education. Such innocently misnamed initiatives as the Mile High Club, a government sponsored outreach designed to advocate responsibility towards nature has been a vehicle that Sebastian has used to preach his message of sustainability. It is too much to expect that the community can be barred entirely from the use of the forest, but if they are to be allowed access to the resources of this vital natural zone, then equally it is incumbent on them to exercise responsibility.

    The Disease And The Cure

And this certainly seems to be happening. Near his home in the lush back country of the Kilimanjaro small holdings Sebastian has a nursery developing a stock of local hardwood seedlings that has resulted in the 2004 celebration of 1 million trees replanted. These have mainly found their way along the stream banks and water catchments of the upper forest, and indeed sometimes as deep into privately owned land as 15km from the forest edge. The people who work and sustain this effort do so voluntarily, and unlike the Blackwood Project, which is support by agencies as divers as the Cottonwood Foundation, the Lindberg Foundation and British Petroleum Tanzania, the work in Kilimanjaro enjoys very limited financial support from the United Nations through its COMPACT program, and massive moral but almost no financial support from the Tanzanian Government.

And yet still the challenges are enormous. Sebastian revealed a touch of the humorous African fatalism that is the only way to survive the moral ambiguity of the tropics. A drive through any one of the towns and villages in the district, and particular conurbations like Moshi and Arusha, will reveal not only mountains of charcoal manufactured illegally, and timber yards stocked to the rafters with illegally harvested camphor wood. This, when one considers that the national parks administration only confiscates timer and fines offenders with a view to individual profit within the department, has an unstoppable momentum.

But Sebastian maintains that the his efforts are making a difference. It is in education that the future lies. When children are nudged towards a more sympathetic understanding of conservation, coupled with the potential for a life liberated from poverty and the primary exploitation of the environment, there is a chance that what remain will be protected, and perhaps, with aggressive reclamation of the forest, the river backs and gullies, that it might even be expanded.

Most of all though it is necessary for us, the tourists who bring our dollars into the community, to make sure that we do does not further the destruction of what we come so far to see and enjoy. Responsible tourism cannot just be the preserve of the operators, it is our responsibility too.