Some people may think that the goals of conservation and development can be hard to reconcile. Build a house, and a tree gets cut down; restrict fishing, and a family goes hungry. However, the success of organizations like the Mpingo Conservation Project (MCP) in Tanzania proves that in the end, these two strategies must go hand in hand.
The Mpingo and East Africa
Mpingo is the Swahili name for the East African Blackwood tree (Dalbergia melanoxylon). The quality of the tree’s wood makes it prized for use in musical instruments (particularly clarinets, oboes, and bagpipes) as well as traditional sculptures, well known in African art and available in tourist shops from Nairobi to New York.
Commercially harvested mpingo are found in the coastal forests and miombo woodlands of East Africa. The Kilwa district of southeastern Tanzania is one such region.
Often overshadowed by the country’s better-known wonders such as Mount Kilimanjaro and Serengeti National Park, the area has historically attracted little development and few tourist dollars. As a result, the Kilwa region is one of the most densely forested areas of Tanzania. The miombo woodlands provide important habitat for large animals including lions (Panthera leo), elephants (Loxodonta africana) and the Endangered African wild dog (Lycaon pictus).
EXPLORE: Eastern Afromontane Biodiversity Hotspot
Due to the large demand for mpingo and escalating development in the region, the trees are in danger of commercial extinction, a situation that would damage the local economy as well as the environment. Mpingo trees grow very slowly; they can’t be harvested until they reach 70-100 years. As a result, mpingo plantations are not viable, and the best chance for the mpingo tree’s commercial survival is to conserve its remaining habitat.
A Move Toward Community Ownership
East Africa’s coastal forests (not to be confused with mangroves) are surrounded by poor communities who rely heavily on forest resources for their daily survival. Illegal logging and infrastructure development pose a significant threat – two-thirds of the East African coastal forest lands have been cleared, and the remainder have been greatly fragmented by development. In contrast, Kilwa’s forests have remained largely intact, although targeted by illegal loggers.
Enter the MCP. Formed in 1995, the independent group has been working in four villages in the Kilwa region since 2004. Under Tanzania’s Participatory Forest Management regulations, local communities can take over forest ownership from the government, allowing them to control access and reap the profits of their own lands, including timber sales.
In order to help engage communities in long-term forest management, MCP works with villages to set aside tracts of land as Village Land Forest Reserves to be managed under sustainable management plans that the communities themselves have written.
Raising awareness about the mpingo is also an important priority for MCP; educating villagers about the true ecological and economic value of the trees means they know enough to ask for a higher price on the market. In addition, MCP trains local people to monitor the forest, to ensure that the supply of mpingo remains healthy and abundant.
READ MORE: Saving Forests From the Ground Up
Getting a Fair Price
The FSC certification awarded to two of Kilwa’s villages is the first certification for community-managed natural forest in Africa, an important landmark for African conservation.
In the words of project leader Steve Ball, "African communities are ready and willing to conserve their forest, but, understandably given their poverty, want something out of it. Forest certification is a private sector solution which rewards communities who manage their forests wisely with higher prices for their forest products."
The villages of Kikole and Kisangi will soon be able to charge 250 times more for their mpingo because of this certification. The dramatic price increase will give villagers a greater incentive to conserve their forests while providing them with the means to lift themselves out of poverty. The first FSC-certified instruments should be available for purchase in 2011, putting the support of sustainable forests into the hands of consumers half a world away.
How do the successes of an independent non-profit in East Africa relate to Conservation International? The Mpingo Conservation Project’s work in 2004 was launched by an award from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), a partnership of CI, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Fauna & Flora International, BirdLife International, and BP. The program serves to advise, train, and support people around the globe who are leading conservation efforts in their homelands.
By building local capacity to plan and manage resources, CLP helps local people gain greater control over their own lives. The success of the Mpingo Conservation Project should serve as an example for other communities worldwide who are trying to balance short-term survival and long-term conservation.
LEARN MORE: The Conservation Leadership Programme