Chikunda’s family was struggling to make ends meet and she didn’t know how they would afford to pay for the delivery and costs associated with the pregnancy.
In Tanzania, expectant mothers need to pay for a birth kit made up of latex gloves, plastic sheeting, soap, blades and umbilical ties that costs up to $23. It is a big expense for farming families like Chikunda’s who only make an annual income of $400-600.
During her pregnancy, Chikunda was told that a new programme would help her pay for the birth kit.
“The money came from the forest,” she said. “When I was going to give birth, the Village Natural Resource Committee gave me the money for all things necessary for the delivery.”
The initiative is one of the many programmes developed in Nanjirinji thanks to income gained from the community-owned forest.
The 61,274-hectare forest is the largest Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified community forest in Africa. The reserve is made up of natural hardwood species including African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon). Locally known as mpingo, the tree is famous for its highly-prized, dark, dense wood.
Though most wouldn’t be able to recognise the tree itself, the blackwood is known around the world for use in musical instruments like clarinets, oboes and bagpipes. The hardwoods found in the coastal forest are also used in furniture and jewellery.
Because of its special properties, mpingo timber has become one of the most expensive in the world, according to the FSC.
While mpingo trees grow throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, the species is under threat from over-harvesting and shifting land use. In Kenya and Ethiopia, mpingo is already commercially extinct, according to the FSC. Overall, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies the tree as Near Threatened.
The Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI) has been working in southern Tanzania for nearly two decades. Following research from Cambridge University suggesting mpingo was becoming vulnerable, the NGO set out to preserve the remaining mpingo forests in the region. In 2012, they helped Nanjirinji A establish their village forest reserve.
Since the project began, Nanjirinji A has made $400,891 from selling sustainably harvested timber, according to MCDI records. The village also has a special bank account associated with the Natural Resources Committee.
One of their main clients is London-based Sound and Fair, a social enterprise that supplies manufacturers with sustainable blackwood timber.
According to Sound and Fair’s director, Neil Bridgland, the market for ethically-sourced wood is on the rise thanks to reforms made in 2008 to the Lacey Act in the United States, which now includes a ban on the trafficking of illegal timber. He added that the EU Timber Regulation, which requires timber traders to do their due diligence when buying wood, has also had an impact.
“Our product is an FSC 100 percent product from Tanzania – from a community source where we can provide full transparency, right through from the forest to the end supplier [making it] an attractive prospect for companies such as musical instrument makers,” Bridgland said.
Sound and Fair is in the process of building a sawmill in Nanjirinji A and hopes to buy 500 cubic meters of blackwood annually from the village – much of it to be sold to companies that make instruments.
According to James Laizer, Sound and Fair’s Tanzania director, the company plans on harvesting additional species from the Nanjirinji A’s village land forest reserve.
“Other species will also be core to our business. Our aim is to try to see species like mpangapanga (Millettia Stuhlmannii) – species that are also good for music instruments – be accepted by the market.”
The money the village makes from the forest reserve is funnelled back into the community. Along with the birth kit programme, in which 220 birth kits were handed out to families during the last three years, the Nanjirinji A village council used the profits to buy one school uniform for every student in the village last year. They’ve also promised about $46 to every student who passed their Standard 7 (seventh grade) exams and enrolled in secondary school.
The village also built a dozen wells from 2013 to 2016 so villagers can easily access clean water. The village council is also building a 17-room guesthouse, which it hopes will bring tourism dollars to the village.
“Before we developed the community forest project, the economy here was very bad,” said Jafari Nyambate, the village chairman. “We were depending on the [regional] government for things we needed. But now, we can do it ourselves.”
Forest under threat
While listed by the IUCN only as Near Threatened, African blackwood has already disappeared from many areas due to high levels of exploitation and illegal logging.
Nanjirinji A’s remoteness has long helped protect it from the grip of illegal logging that has plagued other parts of Tanzania. But that’s beginning to change. In 2003, the government constructed the Mkapa Bridge over the Rufiji River, effectively connecting the southern part of the country with the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. In the years since, the main highway has also been paved, further shortening the drive. Nanjirinji A still lies more than 40 miles from the main paved highway. The road is rough and the drive takes hours but work is being done to change that.
Improving the road will help lumber companies access Nanjirinji A’s timber, and it also makes it easier for illegal loggers to sneak into the forest. According to a 2012 report by MCDI, an estimated 80 percent of all timber harvesting in the district is done illegally. The forest is also facing encroachment from farmers who have been clearing swaths of trees to make room for their plots.
The Nanjirinji A Village Natural Resource Committee has upped their patrols of the forest in an effort to combat illicit harvesting. A lime green tractor sits parked in front of the village chairman’s office, confiscated from illegal loggers during a recent patrol.
“The [practice of] illegal logging has now decreased because we are doing patrols regularly and they are afraid of the bylaws,” chairman Nyambate said. While they have had some success combating illegal loggers, he has requested more aid from local government to help the village conserve their valuable trees.
He believes protecting the forest is the key to the village’s development.
“In the future we hope to plant more trees where we have harvested and we hope to add more land to the community forest,” he said.