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How a group of Tanzanian villagers have seen their lives improve thanks to a local tree called ‘mpingo’

On 5th February 2014, a large group of children were gathered in a tree-shaded square of Nanjirinji A, a village in south-eastern Tanzania. They were patiently waiting for their names to be called while sitting on the ground. In front of them, a table had been placed for their district commissioner and the representative of the village natural resources committee. The two men were distributing new school uniforms to each of the selected primary school pupils while their mothers proudly watched the scene from further back. The commissioner then inaugurated the brand-new primary school of Nanjirinji A. 

Fatuma Maimbo, 43, fondly recalls that day. The farmer, and mother-of-four, is proud to see that her children can now go to their own school. Before, they had to travel every morning to another village to attend classes. The school conditions have steadily improved for the village. In 2016, the natural resources committee bought new uniforms for all the students of the village. And the improvements did not stop at the doorstep of the school.

“Now we’ve bought mattresses and bedsheets for our hospital. And pregnant women get (financial) support for the delivery of their babies.” says Fatuma. “Before, we weren’t able to engage in any development activities because of our low income.”

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Since 2013, the community has also built a marketplace, a dozen wells to access clean water, and a guesthouse to host tourists and, hopefully, bring even more money to the community.

But from where does the funding for all these projects come? “Forests have changed our lives,” says Fatuma. “We understand why it is so important to conserve and secure forests for our benefit and future generations.”

Preserving the forests to develop the community

In 2004, ex-farmer Jasper Makala began working with rural villagers to better their lives by saving their trees. He founded the Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative (MCDI) to reach this goal.

Mpingo is the Swahili name for the east African blackwood. With wood so hard that it can blunt axes, this small scruffy tree is one of the world’s most expensive timbers. It is prized for making the best-quality clarinets and oboes. But mpingo is at risk due to illegal logging.
And there have been fears that if conservation efforts are not made, Tanzania will have no more harvestable mpingo within 20 years; its national tree will be on its way to full extinction.
Jasper Makala saw that humans had destroyed most mpingo in his village and decided to help his community reverse the trend by studying forestry. He also chose to work closely with FSC so they will be there for many generations to come.
In 2009, MCDI was awarded the first FSC group certificate for community-managed natural forests in Africa. Currently, 14 communities in three different districts participate in the scheme, with more than 185,000 hectares of forest FSC certified.

MCDI works with communities, equipping them to own, sustainably manage and benefit from their forests. It also connects them with buyers to facilitate sales of their timber.
Since the village started to sell FSC-certified harvested timber, Nanjirinji A has made more than $400,000 from selling sustainably harvested timber. The natural resources committee uses the sales to develop community projects, funnelling the profits back into the community.

’Our future is to plant more trees’

Abdullah Chihinde, 42, a logging supervisor with two children, says that villagers once lacked forest management skills and did not understand the value of their forests and its products. “Now we know that if we don’t work to conserve our forests, they will eventually disappear,” he says.

“Other communities have learned from us, encouraged to do the same because they see that we benefit from our forests.

MCDI is consistently building on the work it started more than a decade ago. In 2017, it launched the first community-owned sawmill in Africa. They are also expanding the project in more communities so that more people can benefit from conserving their forests and developing sawn timber production.

MCDI and its partner communities have also planted indigenous tree seedlings – more than 15,000 over six months, many of them mpingo.

“Our future is to plant more trees. This will help us earn more money and thus improve our lives. And the future of the mpingo trees will be assured,” adds Abdullah.