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Africa's ark: with the highest concentration of endemic species anywhere in the world, Tanzania's Eastern Arc and coastal forests represent some of the world's most precious habitats. Edward Parker and Christopher Cairns reveal how the Tanzanian authorities hope to ensure their long-term survival.

Rainforests tend to look deceptively peaceful from a distance Under a blanket of low cloud they seem to slumber in steamy tranquility, with only the occasional flypast of a squadron of hornbills or the rustle of a light wind in the canopy to disturb the calm.

The forest that covers much of the Udzungwa Mountains in central Tanzania is no exception. Looming over the great sweep of the Kilombero Valley, these wooded hillsides lie like a sleeping giant, the rich dark green of their flanks split only by the white slash of the great Sanje waterfall as it crashes more than 170 metres to the valley floor.

There's nothing serene about the interior, however. Screeching birds, droning insects and the distant rumble of the falls are ever-present. But it's the activities of the local primates that really grabs the attention. Sounding for all the world like a pub brawl that has spilled over into a local park, the assorted colobus, vervet, Sykes, and mangabey monkeys, not to mention the yellow baboons, go about their daily business with noisy abandon.

Indeed, in the Udzungwas, the usual rules of nature watching go out the window--with so much shouting, quarrelling and crashing going on, there's little point in creeping among the trees in silence. And for two days every week, there is even more noise in the forest--that of local villagers chatting and laughing as they collect fallen branches for firewood and building material. They come only on a Friday or a Sunday, bare-footed mothers and children climbing high into the mountains and returning laden with improbably large bundles of sticks and logs.

What is remarkable about this scene is that although the forests of the Udzungwa Mountains belong to a national park--in which exploitation has theoretically been prohibited since it was founded in 1992--these activities have been sanctioned by the Tanzanian wildlife authority.

The Uzungwa Mountains National Park protects the largest remaining fragment of one of the world's most precious natural habitats--that of the Eastern Arc Mountains and associated coastal forests. This region has been identified by Conservation International as one of 25 'biodiversity hotspots', where high levels of endemism and human impact necessitate the most urgent conservation-management strategies.

Stretching from southeastern Kenya down Tanzania's coast and inland towards Lake Nyasa, these forests represent only 0.1 per cent of Africa's land area. Yet they are home to 13 per cent of the continent's plant species--some 4,000 in total, nearly 1,S00 of which are endemic. Of its 1,019 animal species, 121 are endemic, with nine primates among them. Indeed, with only 2,000 square kilometres of habitat remaining undisturbed, the Eastern Arc Mountains and coastal forests have the highest concentration of endemic species of all the biodiversity hotspots listed.

For millennia, local tribes have acquired firewood, thatch for roofs, bark for medicine and fruit for dinner from the forest. But in recent years, the population has exploded. A huge sugar-cane plantation, new power supply and numerous small businesses have attracted people to the region by the hundreds of thousands. Each family has a traditional wood-and-mud-brick home to build and a fire to feed with wood and charcoal on a daily basis. The subsequent pressure on the forest has become unsustainable, with slash-and-burn farming and widespread logging also taking their toll.

Recognising the urgency of the situation, Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA), with the help of WWF, has adopted a new strategy that has been flourishing in the conservation world in recent years. The carefully controlled access to the forest for the collection of dead wood is one aspect of a plan that is based around the idea that if the local population doesn't value the forest for its own sake, then its long-term survival can never be guaranteed.

TANAPA and WWF have also persuaded people living on the edge of the 1,900-square-kilometre Udzungwa National Park to go into the tree-planting business. Gone are the days, however, when white men in sweat-stained safari suits could sweep into an African village in a cloud of Land Rover dust, berate the locals for their destructive ways, and then return whence they came to organise a rescue plan.

With TANAPA now taking the lead in conservation efforts, the role of Western organisations, although still crucial, falls into the project-speak world of logistical support, implementation strategies and capacity building. All of which means that if anyone was going to give the locals a hard time, it would be a Tanzanian official, not an outsider.

But from the very beginning, education rather than proscription has been the key to the project's success. A population that could believe, as this one did, that national park status meant the forest had been sold to foreigners was clearly in need of some enlightenment. (This myth was spread during the 1995 general election and persuaded some members of the community to attempt to burn down the entire forest.)

Tree nurseries were established a little over four years ago in 14 village sites along the edge of the forest, usually in primary schools. Different varieties are used to guard against soil erosion, add nutrients to fields, provide shelter from high winds or the raw material for so-called green charcoal--a slow-burning fuel made from a mixture of leaves and ash. The children were taught how and why to grow teak, fast-growing yellow cacea, mahogany and other varieties and then encouraged to take the message home to their parents.

"In the beginning, some people used to come and destroy the trees [in the plantations]," says Adrian Lyampawe, head teacher at Msolwa A primary school. "But later, they discovered their importance to the environment and they began to come and steal them. Eventually, they found that they needed more than they could steal and they came and asked for the trees."

The initiative targets women in particular, who have previously had little say in matters relating to the local economy. Many wives and mothers now make a profit from selling wood, fruit and seeds grown in their plantations.

Down the road from Lyampawe's school, the village women's group owns around half a hectare of mixed woodland. The WWF scheme has also 'loaned' them a cow on the understanding that its cost is gradually repaid and that any calves (they have now also bought a bull) are distributed among other villages. Livestock, apart from a few goats and chickens, has never been a traditional feature of agriculture in these parts. So a single cow and the nourishment that its milk provides for children, not to mention what its manure does for the soil, has become a prized asset to the community.

"We want to have a cow each--that is our aim," says local woman Hadjita Mbwana. "Many other women in other villages look at what we are doing and want to do the same." It's hoped that as well as improving their living standards, the women will learn that such improvemens can come from their own efforts, rather than through a handout.

In such a male-dominated society, the idea of women owning land and running their own businesses didn't go down well at first. But now that the results are there to see, the men are having a change of heart. "We are so happy, we do not know what to say," says Mbwana. "We have peace in our house now because our husbands can see that we are producing some income for the family."

And, of course, the knock-on effect is that there is less pressure on forest resources. This goes to the heart of a conservation philosophy that tackles environmental problems by addressing the reasons why over-exploitation happens in the first place. As Simon Naivasha, a forestry officer in the region, puts it, "The main enemies of the environment are poverty and ignorance."

The Udzungwa Mountains aren't the only part of Tanzania to benefit from the new approach. About 300 kilometres to the east, the Zaraninge coastal forest has been ravaged by slash-and-burn agriculture, with fields of corn growing in hundreds of clearings in virgin forest. Standing sentinel over the crops are the skeletons of trees, killed by having their bark stripped and trunks set on fire.

Despite having been practised for thousands of years, this subsistence farming is not only very destructive, it's also barely sufficient to keep privation and malnutrition at bay. The average annual income in the region is below 20 [pounds sterling]. The problem is that the soil that supports such a rich forest isn't very good at nurturing crop after crop of corn. When the feeble harvests become too poor to be worth the effort, the farmer simply attacks another patch of forest to create a new field. As in the Udzungwas, the challenge has been to come up with a solution that not only puts a stop to the destruction, but also improves incomes enough to make the extra effort self-evidently worthwhile.

The key here is a member of the pea family. Leucaena is a small, insignificant-looking plant. Indeed, growing between towering rows of corn it just looks like a weed. But leucaena is a 'nitrogen fixer', symbiotic bacteria in nodules on its roots taking nitrogen from the air and transferring it to the soil in a form that other plants can use. This process replaces the nitrogen lost through the removal of the forest and the perennial growing of corn. The result is that the same fields yield bigger, healthier stands of corn year after year.

As in the Udzungwas, economic diversification is encouraged, and villages are beginning to establish teak and mahogany plantations, while beehives bring in extra money from the sale of honey.

With the help of a few enlightened farmers, WWF and TANAPA are slowly convincing the region's population that this is the way forward. It hasn't been easy, says Pachu Juma, one of the first to try the new methods. With its exotic flowers and fruit trees standing alongside the corn, his farm at Mkange looks like a tropical garden.

At first, it only attracted ridicule. "I grow passionfruit, cassava, pineapple, citrus trees, ochra, teak," says Juma. "To begin with, all my neighbours made fun of me." Within four years, however, the derision had turned to respect as he became by far the most successful farmer for miles around. Juma now teaches others how to make the most of their land without taking more from the forest.

Peter Sumbi, the WWF forestry project officer for the region, couldn't be more pleased. "We aren't going to be here forever, and it's important the farmers carry on after we are gone," he says. "We must make them financially independent so that the long-term protection of the forest is assured. This is how we will save the trees--by making environmentally sustainable farming economically sustainable as well."

Edward Parker's photography appears in the new Constable book, The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern Ireland, priced at 16.99 [pounds sterling]
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Author:Parker, Edward; Cairns, Christopher
Geographic Code:6TANZ
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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