The Uluguru mountains in Tanzania are losing their forest cover at a rapid rateImage: Sascha Quaiser
April 6, 2010
Tanzania's unique mountain forests are threatened by large-scale tree-cutting. It's estimated that the eastern African country has already lost a third of its natural forest cover. Now, efforts are on to reverse it.
A flight from Kenya to Tanzania on a clear, cloudless day offers a breathtaking view over the Kilimanjaro range. Africa's highest mountain, with its dramatic ice-capped peaks, rises up from the surrounding lush greenery.
But this spectacle of nature is at risk. Kilimanjaro's white cap is retreating in extent and volume. Researchers estimate that the mountain could be completely ice-free in two or three decades - for the first time in 11,000 years.
"That shows us that climate change has long arrived in Africa and that it's high time something is done about it," Christof Schenck, a biologist at the Zoology Institute in Frankfurt said.
Eastern Arc Mountains a "hot spot"
The thinning of Tanzania's famed mountain forests is one of the main reasons for climate change - a fact that poses a grave risk for the country.
Tanzania's Eastern Arc Mountain range runs through almost the entire country. Some of these peaks have been covered with forests for more than 30 million years. The mountains are known internationally as a "hot spot." That means the forests are home to rare species of plants and animal life, many of which are endangered. More than two thirds of Tanzania's mountain forests are already destroyed.
The forests play a crucial role in the country's irrigation system. They work as a kind of sponge, storing water from the heavy downpours in the monsoon season until there is a dry period. They then let the water flow slowly into the valleys and prevent floods. The mountain forests - like most forests - also trap and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide and thus help in reducing global warming.
Clearing forests a disaster
But the Eastern Arc Mountains are losing their important carbon storage function through the clearing of large areas of forest cover. As a result, huge quantities of water flow down the mountains in the rainy season, leading partially to a deluge in deeper areas.
On the other hand, the dry seasons are marked by a more frequent and longer-lasting extreme drought. Rivers originating in the mountains are partially silted up. They often don't bring enough water in heavily-populated regions such as Dar es Salaam and Dodoma.
The destruction of Tanzania's forest is man-made. There are two main causes. One is that many people are increasingly expanding their arable land from the lowlands towards the mountains. The second is that Tanzania's energy needs are rising rapidly. Meals are traditionally cooked using charcoal and wood. It's often collected in the mountain forests and sold in the cities.
The growing population in the region around the Eastern Arc Mountains explains the expansion of agricultural activity as well as the surging demand for wood and charcoal.
Tackling the problem
Tanzania's government has recognized the dilemma posed by a growing population and the rising demand for natural resources on the one hand, and the need to protect nature on the other. Most government officials understand that the relentless exploitation of natural resources will destroy the living conditions of humans in the long run.
The government has established the "Eastern Arc Mountains Conservation Endowment Fund" (EAMCEF) to protect the vital range. The foundation's aim is to secure the long-term funding of projects that serve to preserve mountain forests.
But experts say projects financed by the EAMCEF are often too short-lived to halt the destruction of mountain forests, let alone to help in reforestation. Tanzania thus needs more help from the West to tackle the problem.
One example of this is a training program for park rangers, financed by the German environment ministry. It involves disseminating practical information about forestry in the context of climate change. People living near the reserves were invited to take part in the program and were given help in lessening their dependence on mountain resources.
German know-how for Tanzania
Germany has a long tradition in sustainably managing its forests - know-how that could be successfully exported to Tanzania. The word "sustainability" was used in connection with German forests more than 200 hundred years ago.
But that term is used in a much broader sense today. The so-called Brundtland report by the United Nations, which is often cited on the topic, says a sustainable development must "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and to choose their lifestyles."
Biologist Schenck says that definition of sustainability holds a clear message for Tanzania.
"That would mean that future generations would find as many mountain forests in Tanzania as we did."
Author: Martin Schrader (sp)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn