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Bushblok is an innovation of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a non-profit trust working to ensure the survival of the cheetah and its ecosystems in central Namibia.
The cheetah is under grave threat. Worldwide, numbers have plummeted from 100,000 in 1900 to less than 7,500; a third live in Namibia, mostly on livestock farms. In the 1980s alone Namibia’s cheetah population halved: farmers saw them as a threat to livestock during a severe drought.
A huge problem, though, is “bush encroachment”, the thickening of bush and trees. Cheetahs once thrived in the mixed woodland savannah of central Namibian. But human disturbance – overgrazing, fire suppression and removal of browsers like elephants and rhinos – tilted the balance of grassland and trees. Thornbush choked the landscape, making it impossible for cheetahs to run or hunt.
Encroachment affects about 26 million hectares of Namibia’s total 82 million. It threatens the survival of other wildlife and livelihoods of communities that rely on farming, which supports almost three-quarters of Namibians in one way or another.
“We wanted to come up with a process that shows we can utilize the bush while restoring the ecosystem, and decided that a wood fuel brick was the most economical product to get into,” CCF General Manager Dr Bruce Brewer says.
Charcoal producers often harvest mature trees and leave small bushes, which does not open up the savannah. “We positioned ourselves as whole tree processors. But we were careful not to encourage clear-cutting,” Brewer adds.
Then there is the additional benefit of job creation in a region where unemployment is high. Bushblok employs 30 people, and as the industry grows, so will jobs. Harvesting alone could provide hundreds of jobs.
CCF also evaluates other forms of renewable energy technologies, such as solar. And part of their plans includes working out how to get small power grids going in rural areas.
The Bushblok factory, situated in Otjiwarongo, produces around 500 tons each year.
Consumers fall into the middle- to upper-income group, and they use the product for barbecuing and for heating in fireplaces.
Since harvesting began, Nghikembua says that CCF has seen animals and grass species coming back. He is also convinced that the savannah restoration has contributed to improved tourism income: open areas are better for tourists who want to see animals. Around 10,000 visitors come through the CCF centre each year.
Springs have not been active in this arid landscape as bush thickened and high tree densities sucked up moisture. “We are working with a university, looking at soil moisture. We should have results soon to tell us what is happening,” Nghikembua says.
And the cheetah? Numbers in Namibia have stabilized, and CCF says this is due to the “joint efforts of the Namibian government and communities in support of CCF’s work”. As CCF Director Laurie Marker says, to save the cheetah, we must save the world by considering those that share its habitat, humans included.
FSC certification of Bushblok, obtained in 2006, was a logical step. “Its criteria and oversight cause us to pay attention to the detail of what we are doing,” Brewer says.
“We are trying to lead by example with a win-win that combines biodiversity conservation with improving livelihoods by restoring a productive savannah. We are linking economics, biodiversity and social aspects – and saving a species,” CCF Senior Ecologist and Forest Steward Matti Tweshingilwa Nghikembua points out.
He adds that FSC certification provides a platform for promotion of best practice. “We’re addressing consumer awareness of FSC … We think that, through people like us, FSC can reach the grassroots.”