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Timber from Tanzania: supporting community forest enterprises


Tanzania is a country rich in forests and wildlife. While it is famous for the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater in the North, there is an expanse of forests – miombo woodlands to be precise – in the south of the country lesser known to the outside world. The Ruvuma River forms the border between Tanzania and Mozambique and its watershed covers a very large landscape.  This trans boundary region is considered to be one of the few remnant wilderness areas in Africa and home to the second largest elephant population on the continent too. But the region is at a turning point.

The “Ruvuma Landscape”, as WWF sees it, covers 280,000km2. It is one of the fastest growing regions in East Africa due to the recent discovery of large deposits of oil, gas and other minerals. Both the Mozambique and Tanzanian governments are planning and building major infrastructure, for the extractives industry in particular. Illegal logging, artisanal mining and poaching are already problems in the area. There are risks and opportunities with the new developments. WWF offices in the region, in particular WWF staff Geofrey Mwanjela and Isaac Mulugu, are closely engaged in the planning process and social and environmental impact assessments to increase the chances of these investments driving sustainable development that support local communities.

New road under construction through Ruvuma Landscape, Tanzania.New road under construction through Ruvuma Landscape, Tanzania. © Will Ashley-Cantello / WWF-UK

One of WWF’s activities in the area is to increase the coverage of community forest management in the Tanzanian district of Tunduru in particular. Tunduru has a population of almost 300,000, growing at nearly 3% per year, and spread sparsely over a large area. The authorities do not have the capability to manage and monitor activities over this large area and rural income generation is very challenging. So the creation of formal community forest areas, recognition of their rights to use that land and its resources as well as their responsibilities in managing it, can be a win-win. Villages have access to timber and other forest products, and are trained in land use planning and sustainable forest management. And, according to village committees themselves, this helps to reduce illegal logging both by increasing the monitoring and patrols of areas at risk. The difficult part is enabling the community to generate income from that land.

In February I was lucky enough to visit this area, and meet the forest committee of Machemba Village in Tunduru. They have gazetted a village forest of 4,612 ha – nearly 10,000 football pitches! WWF works in partnership with the district council and two local NGOs called Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI) and MJUMITA. This coalition informs, trains and ensures the communities have secured appropriate legal recognition to be able to go the next phase – which is where the income comes in.

MCDI has been working for over 10 years to develop a model whereby community controlled forest enterprises can access domestic and international markets for sustainable hardwood timber. They have been able to achieve success in pilot villages in another district which improved livelihoods, and now are working with WWF to roll this model out to 15 more villages in Tunduru, one of which being Machemba. The model involves the village forest committee securing FSC certification under MCDI’s group certificate. In doing so, a stock assessment of the forest is made which allows a harvesting plan to be drawn up – depending on how much of which species are at which stage of maturity. MCDI is then able to work with others to market the timber domestically and internationally.

Members of the Machemba Village forest committee take lunch in their forest area, Tanzania.Members of the Machemba Village forest committee take lunch in their forest area, Tanzania. © Will Ashley-Cantello / WWF-UK

Inevitably, there are hurdles to overcome. Currently the initiative is dependent on donor funding. MCDI’s intention is that it will work as a not-for-profit “service provider” funded through a small commission (~5%) taken from village timber sales, when they are high enough. Secondly, finding a market for this timber is not easy. The hardwoods have extremely useful attributes in terms of strength, aesthetics (a range of colours and grains) and more, but they are unknown to most markets so need active promotion. MCDI has a small number of buyers at the moment, with the prospect of increased orders, but more will be needed. Furniture, musical instruments and flooring are ideal applications. Finally, there is the challenge of getting the product from the village forest to the buyer in an area where infrastructure is poor if improving.

The FSC certification has pros and cons in itself. For MCDI CEO Jasper Makala, the main advantages are the assistance it provides in developing a good management plan and access to international buyers looking to source responsibly. The challenges include the upfront costs to secure certification which in turn are dependent on domestic and international demand for FSC hardwoods for payback, which he felt was currently too low. Of course, certification will not always be appropriate and other means of verifying responsible production is something that needs more exploration.

But if it were easy, then we wouldn’t need to do it! Innovation, up front enabling investment, effective marketing and time are needed to bring these opportunities to fruition. The coalition in Tunduru is working on those challenges with support from international organisations like WWF and businesses like SenseGroup. From what I saw, this impressive group could be close to a breakthrough.

In fact, this case study is directly relevant to one element of WWF-UK’s Forest Campaign.  Today, at the Houses of Parliament, we will be launching our asks of governments and businesses to ensure that the UK timber market is 100% legal and sustainable by 2020. One of the five actions we are promoting (see this blog for more info on the ideas) to achieve a sustainable market is to support and promote sustainable timber from small scale producers. This is essential to ensure these producers can access our markets and also to create a more locally beneficial and diverse global timber trade. More innovation, investment, marketing and time will be needed from Governments, businesses, investors and NGOs to make enterprises such as those in Tunduru easier and more common.

The work ongoing in Tunduru is a prime example of this kind of activity – and there are other examples around the world. If successful, the enterprises in Tunduru have the potential to reduce the risk of unplanned or illegal forest loss (a common consequence in the wake of new infrastructure) and create long-term, sustainable incomes. This is one component of many that could help maintain the vast miombo woodlands and other ecosystems in the Ruvuma landscape. Watch this space… or let us know what you think better, or even get in touch for more information!

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