Locals call the tree mpingo, the Swahili name for the east African blackwood. With wood so hard that it can blunt axes, mpingo can take up to a century to reach harvestable size – and yield one of the world’s most expensive timbers.
But illegal logging has made mpingo commercially extinct in some countries, such as Kenya; commercial extinction means that trees are not replaced fast enough to meet harvest needs.
And there have been fears that if conservation efforts are not made, Tanzania will have no more harvestable mpingo within 20 years. Its national tree will be on its way to full extinction.
In 2004, Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative (MCDI) began working with rural villagers to save the mpingo and better their lives. MCDI founding member Makala Jasper, once a farmer here, saw that humans had destroyed most mpingo in his village, and resolved to study forestry.
When Jasper won a 2016 Whitley Award, known as a “green Oscar”, he declared: “Rural Tanzanians need support to understand how to conserve their forests. They need to see the connection between healthy forests and food on their plate, (between) clean water flowing from streams and their children attending schools. I help them make the connections.”
His role as a model of environmental stewardship was also recognized when he won the National Geographic Society Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation this year.
In 2009, MCDI was awarded the first and still the only FSC group certificate for community-managed natural forests in Africa. Currently, 13 communities in Kilwa, Tunduru and Rufiji districts participate in the scheme, with more than 150,000 hectares of forest FSC certified. MCDI is expanding to new areas.
MCDI works with communities, equipping them to own, sustainably manage and benefit from their forests. It also connects them with buyers to facilitate sales of their timber. Mpingo is prized for making the best-quality clarinets and oboes; other hardwoods growing in local forests are used for furniture, flooring, construction and other uses.
“Forests have changed our lives,” farmer and mother-of-four Fatuma Maimbo, 41, in the village of Nanjirinji A says simply.
“Before, we weren’t able to engage in any development activities because of our low income,” she says. “Now we’ve bought mattresses and bedsheets for our hospital. We’ve built a village office and a guesthouse. And pregnant women get (financial) support for the delivery of their babies.”
She is one of many who tell you that their children now go to the school in their own village instead of in another village, and that parents can afford to buy them uniforms.
“We understand why it is so important to conserve and secure forests for our benefit and for future generations,” Maimbo says.
“We are now providing education to other communities on the importance of conserving forests, and why we should avoid burning forests, shifting cultivation and illegally producing charcoal.” Shifting cultivation refers to clearing land for temporary farming.
Others in Nanjirinji A agree.
“We were poor,” Abdullah Licheu, 62, a plumbing technician with five children, says. “Now we are earning money from the forests, and our living standards have improved drastically.
“Through working with MCDI and getting FSC certification, we’ve gained skills that help us manage our forests in a sustainable manner,” he says.
“We have a programme of reforestation, we participate in the security of our forest by doing patrols and we do not cut trees without permission from our leaders. We harvest according to a plan so that we do not destroy our forests.”
Abdullah Chihinde, 40, a logging supervisor with two children, says that villagers once lacked forest management skills and did not understand the value of their forests and its products.
When MCDI arrived on the scene, many “feared that they had come to take our forests and our land for their benefit. (Now) we know that if we don’t work to conserve our forests, they will eventually disappear.
“Other communities have learned from us … They are encouraged to do the same because they see that we benefit from our forests.”
MCDI and its partner communities have planted more than 15,000 indigenous tree seedlings, many of them mpingo, just in the first half of 2016.
As Chihinde says, “Our future is to plant more trees. This will help us earn more money and thus improve our lives … And the future of the mpingo trees will be assured.”