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The Fate of The Forest: Conservation on Kilimanjaro

Wanton destruction of trees in mountains has completely ruined our environment. It is now necessary to ban destruction of forests to save the environment… Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania


Kilimanjaro experienced a difficult birth into the general geographic consciousness of the 19th century. The first missionary travelers to peer up to the snow capped peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi reported back to the various metropolitan geographic societies that snow and glaciers existed in Africa just three hundred miles from the equator. With the characteristic conservatism of the times, and upon a minimum of reflection, these claims were dismissed.

The premise of this rejection was the tried and tested principal that what transgresses currently understood doctrines must be false. Respected experts who had carefully researched the matter in the smoking rooms of Europe let it be it known that such a phenomenon simply could not exist in tropical Africa.

The Myth of Glacier Run-off

When the reality of tropical glaciers was finally acknowledged it was then naturally assumed that it was from these that the local streams and rivers were fed. This assumption continued until the early part of the 20th century, with writers such as Hans Meyer, the first to summit kilimanjaro, and author of the influential Across East African Glaciers, Peter MacQueen, who climbed Kilimanjaro in 1908, all persisting with the notion that glacial runoff was principally responsible for the streams and rivers that originate on Kilimanjaro, and as a consequence the nourishment of her flanking forests.

It has now been fairly definitively established that this is not so. Research of the last 50 years has revealed that it is the forest that is key to the survival of the glaciers, and not vice versa. A study conducted in August 2008 reported that deforestation in the foothills of Kilimanjaro has steadily diminished cloud and mist cover on the mountain, which in turn has tended reduced general humidity, directly affecting the health of the glaciers.

A steady and general drying of the local environment observed around Kilimanjaro has less to do with a reduction in the size of the glaciers and more to do with deforestation. Kilimanjaro has always been an area of high population density, and in the 130-years or so since colonial intervention a huge increase in the clearing of land for small scale cash crop production has seen a steady decline the area of pristine forest on the flanks of Kilimanjaro. Herein lies the root of the crisis

The Forest of Kilimanjaro

The forests of Kilimanjaro blanket the softly undulating flanks of the mountain, trapping moisture and acting like a sponge. The forest exists in a belt that is in places less than a kilometer thick, and several kilometers thick in others. When Hans Meyer and Peter MacQueen penetrated the region as the first generation of salient travelers, they found the forest immense, skirting the mountain to the floor of the savannah, graded in density and saturation, and most verdant and concentrated between 1,300m to 3,300m above sea level.

At the turn of the 20th century the forest was the preserve of the Chagga sub-group of the regional Bantu speaking population, and a handful of white missionaries, traders and adventurers. Reading through the memoirs of both men one is left with a picture of isolated communities interlinked by narrow forest footpaths and hemmed in on all sides by brooding vegetation. The Chagga existed in politically distinct sub-groupings like the Moshi, Marangu and Shira clans, living under local chieftainships, and despite assiduous missionary attention, oppressed by the stifling superstition that tends to pervade the lives of forest folk.

In those days the forest was vast, and seemingly impervious to the efforts of mankind to make an impression, but in the years that have followed this balance has changed dramatically. Since the late 1800s the conquest of the forest has been complete, and its actual annihilation as a viable and sustainable ecosystem is imminent. Only dramatic and rapid intervention can now save what remains of this iconic and vital feature of the mountain landscape.


This sort of work usually falls to volunteer organisations and NGOs, that, guided and administered by a handful of professional conservationists, often win great acclaim but attract almost no serious commitment or support from the establishment. The general mandate of these organisations is to attempt the enlightenment of local people towards the fact that they are steadily sowing the seeds of their own destruction. The ongoing land clearing for agriculture is wholly counter-productive, since it is merely creating the conditions under which agriculture will ultimately become impossible.

The damaging practices that almost every mountain community is guilty of are collectively assuring the ultimate destruction the forest. If this happens it will alter the local climate and impair the capacity of the land to soak up and retain water. Flash flooding would occur, followed by massive gully erosion and landslides, all of which are already visibly affecting the landscape. Notwithstanding the tragic loss of biodiversity, the ramifications would be catastrophic on the local human population. Kilimanjaro is the most important rain sponge and water catchment area for both Tanzania and Kenya, sustaining millions of people in every direction, and maintaining the flow of countless rivers as well as a handful of formative hydro-electric power schemes.

The myth that the retreat of the glacial cap of Kilimanjaro spells doom for the water runoff has long been exploded. It will be a great shame to see the last slither of ice evaporate from the summit, but that fact alone will not materially alter the flow of water. It is the forest that generates and receives most of the rainfall, and within which the ooze zones and sponges dole out a regulated supply for annual use downstream.

The Cause

There are a number of tired old themes that echo through the Kilimanjaro conservation debate to explain the current status, and illegal logging and the local charcoal industry are only two of these. Corruption, poverty, illiteracy and overpopulation are no less prominent among the factors affecting environmental degradation in Africa.

Charcoal: The charcoal industry in Africa is the culprit in perhaps more incidences of catastrophic deforestation continent wide than anything else. It has to date destroyed huge swathes of forest and woodland throughout Mozambique, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania and many areas of west and central Africa. Charcoal is the fuel of choice for urban and rural communities throughout Africa and is also an extremely lucrative contributor to many an informal economy. It has also in recent years become highly organised, and in certain places part of the bankroll of warlords and budget revolutions.

The charcoal industry and associated habitat destruction in eastern DRC is accurately touted as the single biggest threat to surviving populations of Mountain Gorilla in the country. It is without doubt the principal menace to the long term sustainability of Kilimanjaro’s indigenous forest reserves.

Illegal Logging: There is no sector of the Kilimanjaro forest that is not to some degree impacted by this. The tree of choice is mainly the local camphor Ocotea usambarensis, which is a large tree, reaching upwards of 30m, and is useful mainly for furniture and construction. Other targeted species include a local wild cedar Juniperus procera, but in fact all the main tree species suffer either from illicit commercial harvesting or direct exploitation for domestic firewood use.

Corruption: Both charcoal and illegal logging feed into another destructive phenomenon rampant in east Africa, and that is corruption. Both logging and charcoal are profitable industries, and as such both attract the attentions of local fat cats and politicians. Lucrative kick-backs and direct involvement help to fuel the ongoing illegal commercial exploitation of the forest.

Poverty: There are other factors that are less straightforward but no less important to the conservation debate in Kilimanjaro. In a region experiencing limited investment and development, exploding populations naturally turn to the easily accessible resources of the forest to generate wealth, or simply to survive.

In the wake of this villageisation is quick to follow, and hot on the heels of this tends to follow patchwork clearing for village cultivation and the widespread foraging of livestock in the forest.

Miscellaneous: Bringing up the rear of threats to the Kilimanjaro forest are the bushfires which result from honey collection or charcoal kilns, and of course commercial timber estates licensed to farm fast growing exotic species such as pine and cypress. These species wild-seed into forest fringes and in due course begin to colonies areas of indigenous forest

The Effect

All of this is clearly unsustainable, and tends to place the greatest risk alongside the greatest culpability. This is not a crisis that can be directly blamed on the avarice or ignorance of the west, but lies more in the domain of local misadministration, corruption, greed and indifference. This region of Tanzania by no means wallows in the degrees of poverty of eastern DRC, or such lately traumatized societies as Rwanda and Uganda, but the need is still great, and the nearby forest resource readily available.

If a direct reminder of the peril to the local climate and economy was needed, it can be found in perennial streams running dry for a portion of the year, and some seasonal flows drying up altogether. The water flows from Kilimanjaro sustain by means of an ingenious system of furrows a thriving local small-holder industry that, apart from the regional staples of bananas and other tropical fruit, is also famous for outstanding coffee. Beyond this the forest of Kilimanjaro provides water for communities far downstream of the slopes and hinterland, meaning that millions of people rely on the integrity of just a few hundred square kilometers of threatened forest.

The Cure

In the small town of Moshi lives a modest environmental warrior who has won acclaim internationally for his work in conservation across the northern region of Tanzania. For 30 years 54-year old Sebastian Chuwa has been studying environmental issues in Tanzania, from which have emerged his twin mantras of Community Activism and Youth Education. The former is an appeal to the people directly affected by the crisis on the ground to seek and find solutions to problems that affect their own communities. One of the main problems must of course be poverty, and to address that Youth Education in a general sense in vital, but in a more local sense it is a means to introduce young people to the value inherent in their natural environment, and what can ultimately be achieved by sustainable use of it.

This is in simple terms a practical manifestation of the maxim: ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat today, teach him to fish and he will eat everyday.’

Another string to this bow is a movement called COMPACT, or Community Management of Protected Areas Conservation Project, which, as the name suggest is an organization under which encouragement is given to local communities to organize towards the sustainable use of their natural resources.

Why is this so important? Gone are the days in Africa when vast landscapes of ecological importance could be sealed off from any human impact other than tourism. Nowadays population pressures demand access even to protected land, and methods need to be devised to accommodate two such divergent interests as development and conservation.

To quote the United Nations Development program website the mandate of COMPACT is: ‘…to show how community-led initiatives can significantly increase the effectiveness of biodiversity conservation in World Heritage Sites…

This in layman’s terms means show us the money! Make the forest sustainably productive in its natural form and the policing of the environment will take care of itself.


There are many ways that this can be achieved, but the cleanest and quickest way is to encourage village based eco-tourism that escapes the noose of big money interests, corrupt local officials and the generally one way flow of eco-dollars from the biosphere to the treasury. Often this can only be achieved through the management of projects by non-governmental organizations, in this case the UNDP and other funding bodies.

Many examples of this philosophy at work exist, and in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique swift advances have been made in transferring the responsibility for the management of natural areas to local communities. Some have failed, most have not. The idea that an area of supreme natural bounty must for all time be protected from its owners make no sense whatsoever. The future lies in teaching local communities what nature can be worth, and in doing so giving us all the gift of a sustainable environment and untrammeled nature.