Makala Pioneering a community-led model for forest protection

Makala Jasper, a skilled forester and dedicated conservationist, is chief executive officer of the Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative (MCDI): a Tanzanian nonprofit committed to improving the well-being of rural communities—as well as the forests upon which they rely.

I was 20 years old looking after my family’s cattle when I first really noticed the forest. Most of the land in our village had been cleared of trees, and there wasn’t much wildlife, but that day I found myself in a beautiful patch of miombo woodland with antelope grazing not too far from where I was standing, and I knew it was something special.

I saw my first mpingo tree some years later, and it had the opposite effect. Mpingo, as it is known in Swahili, or East African blackwood, is such an insignificant looking tree; you could easily walk past not knowing it is one of the most valuable timbers in the world!

People living rurally in Tanzania don’t have ready access to the knowledge that really understands the importance of this ecosystem; they need to see the connection between healthy forests and the food on their plate, the clean water flowing from the well, their child learning in school... That’s what I do now, and it’s working. Once local people see the value in sustainably managing their forests, they will work to protect them.

Community-based forest management

In 2004, I co-founded the NGO, Mpingo Conservation Project, now Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI).

At MCDI, we work with rural villages in Tanzania, supporting them to engage in Community-Based Forest Management (CBFM). Under Tanzania’s 1998 forest policy, once communities have established Village Land Forest Reserves (VLFRs) within the CBFM framework, they have the rights to sustainably harvest and sell products from within these local protected areas.

Photo: Miombo woodland © Geoff Gallice from Gainesville, FL, USA (CC by 2.0)

This was very much untested territory in Tanzania back when we started in 2004 and there was scepticism even among local government that this new CBFM approach could work: it was thought that rural communities didn’t have the level of education or capacity to be entrusted with managing forest resources sustainably. But we persisted.

Five years later in 2009, we proudly announced the first VLFR in Kilwa District, located in Kikole village. In the same year, we also supported the first ever commercial timber harvest from a VLFR in Tanzania, earning the village 100 times more per cubic meter of mpingo wood than they would have generated without their forest reserve.

What is mpingo?

Mpingo is an extremely dense and dark, almost black, hardwood that is prized internationally for its turning and tonal qualities.

It is these qualities that make mpingo an excellent material for woodwind musical instruments, such as clarinets and oboes, as well as for fingerboards on professional grade violins.

Regrettably, these qualities of mpingo have also led to its steady demise – the species has now become commercially extinct in Kenya and, far from its former distribution across East Africa, the tree now only grows in meaningful numbers in Southern Tanzania and Northern Mozambique.

We’ve come a long way since our modest beginnings. Now, 15 years later, we have supported more than 43 rural villages to establish VLFRs, bringing more than 413,000 hectares of natural forests under sustainable management. In addition to mpingo, we now support these villages to harvest and sell over 15 timber species, with 24 communities having generated more than $813,559 to date. Perhaps our most significant achievement is in managing the only Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) group certificate for community-managed natural forests in Africa.

A new model for forest protection

About half of the revenues generated from timber are used by villages to finance VLFR management. It funds forest patrols, fire controls and checks to monitor forest health. The rest is put into funding community development projects. Water wells, clinics and schools have all been built based on priorities set in their village development plans.

With this clear connection between forests and local well-being, local people can feel its value and see a real reason to protect their forests.

Partnering for forests

Our focus over the next few years is to help communities generate enough revenues from their VLFRs so that they can run independently of external support and donor funding.

P4F’s support is helping us get there. We’ve been able to access resources that we need to market forest products on behalf of communities more effectively. And we’re hoping it will help our communities complete their first assessment against the new FSC national standard for Tanzania which is being drafted at the moment.

We’ve also been using the assistance to develop our own in-house business skills. We recently hired a dedicated Business Development Manager, who is working on our long-term market strategy. As well as increasing community revenues from forests, we’ll be exploring models that will set MCDI on a more financially self-sufficient trajectory, reducing our reliance on donor funding. We’re actually exploring options to use the “leftover” from larger wood slabs to process other products for sale like wooden cutting boards.

My aspiration is that Tanzania is able to strike a balance between the need for additional land and resources to feed and house its growing population and the need to live in harmony with the natural environment (on which the future of our way of life hangs). This is why we at MCDI are doing everything that we can to generate additional value from forests for communities willing to manage them sustainably.

In addition to Tanzania’s reputation as having one of the most advanced CBFM policies in Africa, I hope that the country can come to position itself as a leader in climate change mitigation through forest conservation and restoration. Over the next five years, for MCDI, this will entail fine tuning our CBFM model so that VLFRs can become financially self-supporting. We will share our recipe for sustainable community forestry far and wide, so that it can be scaled up and replicated in other locations across Tanzania and East Africa.