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Conserving Tanzania's cloud forest

Rachel Stern
March 28, 2017

Through local conservation projects and guiding tourists, villagers living around Tanzania's Amani Nature Reserve are protecting the land they once exploited.

Image: Norbert Cordeiro

For seven years, Juma Ayubu Kidy combed a corner of Tanzania's cloud forest day and night, catching chameleons, birds, tortoises and other animals deemed valuable in the illegal pet trade.

One day, a local conservationist caught Kidy as he crouched in the forest, filling a basket with live frogs. But instead of a confrontation, the two men had a conversation.

"I convinced him to stop doing illegal activities. Instead I promised him a temporary job as a watchman during my fieldwork," said Victor Mkongewa, a conservationist at the Amani Nature Reserve who also grew up in the region, and continues to live there.

Kidy now serves as a watchman and tour guide at the 8,000-hectare (20,000-acre) reserve, using his knowledge of local species to protect rather than poach them.

"He became good field assistant, and really enjoys his job," Mkongewa added.

The former poacher is not the only one who has swapped sides. Through partnerships funded by the park in the East Usambara Biosphere Reserve and by other nongovernmental organizations, locals like Kidy are learning how to manage rather than exploit the forest and its surrounding farmlands, while also earning a living.

Plundered natural wealth

The rich biodiversity of the Usambara Mountains, which includes endemic and endangered species, has led to their being dubbed "the Galápagos Islands of Eastern Tanzania."

Giant puddles where trees once stood
Due to intense deforestation, parts of the forest in and around Amani were fragmented. Image: Norbert Cordeiro

Located about 340 kilometers (211 miles) northeast of the capital of Dar es Salaam and formerly part of German East Africa, the mountains have a long history of human settlement and exploitation.

The area has faced severe environmental challenges from both the impact of the local population, which is growing at a rate of 4 percent - almost twice the national average - and from outside companies and individuals with interests in gold, agriculture, wood and reptiles for the illegal pet trade.

According to theNational Forest Programme, forests in the Eastern Usambara Mountains were cleared at a rate of up to 500,000 hectares annually between 1971 and 1999.

As habitats became fragmented, wildlife corridors were cut off and resources were overharvested.

Though the 84-square-kilometer (32-square-mile) Amani Nature Reserve was established in 1997, resource-intensive cash crop agriculture, poaching and gold mining have continued within it.

Agricultural initiatives

A green chameleon
Usambara Three-horned chameleon, a reptile endemic to the regionImage: Norbert Cordeiro

Keeping economic challenges in mind, environmental projects within the park not only teach local villagers how to restore habitat and protect wildlife, but also show them how to cultivate crops for their own consumption and to sell at local markets.

Through one scheme in partnership with Kihime Family Africa, villagers planted more than 30 native tree species on abandoned land, which can easily grow side by side with introduced cash crop trees like cloves and cinnamon.

Growing these crops among native vegetation enhances general biodiversity, increasing essential "ecosystem services" such as water cycling, pollination and seed dispersal.

"At the same time, it benefits local communities who can utilize the cash crop trees," Norbert Cordeiro, a native Tanzanian from Roosevelt University in Chicago who returns to Amani once a year, told DW in an email.

Backyard sustainability

Villagers also harvest the seeds from the native trees. For one of the tree species, Allanblackia stuhlmannii, local people collect the seeds, and use the oil extracted from them to make various products including margarine and soaps.

"People are taking those seedlings and they are growing them in their farmland, so in a way it is helping them to alleviate poverty," Henry Ndangalasi from the University of Dar es Salaam, who worked on the project, told DW.

Juma explains edible fruit and tries some himselfImage: Victor Mkongewa

In partnership with the Amani Nature Reserve, villagers on the land surrounding the park now also have their own vegetable gardens, beehives and fish ponds, selling excess supplies at market and to a growing number of tourists.

The reserve is well connected to nearby towns and traders, but the road needs to be surfaced - a project it could take years to complete once it is started. But slow progress is no stranger to environmental challenges.

Tackling current challenges

When gold was discovered in Amani in 2003, thousands of Tanzanians flocked to the reserve, setting up illegal encampments, polluting streams and eroding native vegetation. While the practice has significantly decreased in recent years, it is still present.

The villages surrounding the park have their own environmental committee, with two representatives from each who patrol the forest to stop illegal logging and gold mining. They know the terrain well, and are becoming better at identifying sites that have been plundered for their resources. But recognition is not the end of story.

People planting trees
Locals around Amani planting trees in holes left by minersImage: Victor Mkongewa

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon earlier this year, Mkongewa helped mobilize 700 people from local villages to plant trees on muddy land that had been laid bare by mining.

"I want to train locals to conserve the forest because the forest is everything," says Mkongewa.

"They realize how preserving the forest will protect their livelihood in the long term, instead of cutting the trees for two days and waiting 100 years for the forest to regenerate."