How communities and their forests can thrive together

Posted on 20 May 2019

A 10-year project in the East Usambara mountains of Tanzania improved the prospects for people and threatened forests.
Forests are a vital safety net for people living in poverty, providing food and fuel, medicines and materials, as well as maintaining freshwater supplies. At the same time, though, poverty can be a threat to forests, as people clear land to grow food and cash crops and harvest more resources than the ecosystem can sustain. On top of this, forests continue to be cleared for commercial agriculture, infrastructure and extractive industries in the name of economic development.

In the East Usambara mountains of Tanzania, though, a different story has been unfolding. Here, forest loss has been reduced considerably, and more than a million tree seedlings have been planted. Forest fires have been virtually eliminated. Food security has improved. And many villagers have more than tripled their income.

This transformation is the result of a 10-year forest landscape restoration (FLR) project, led by WWF and local partner NGO Tanzania Forest Conservation Group (TFCG), that has empowered local people to manage their forest resources and improve their livelihoods. And with Tanzania joining other African countries in pledging to restore up to 100 million hectares of deforested and degraded land over the coming decade, there are valuable lessons to learn.

A biodiversity hotspot

The forests of coastal East Africa are one of the world’s most endangered biodiversity hotspots. Only about 10 per cent of the region’s natural habitat remains, but it still harbours an array of unique and endangered wildlife – including over 1,500 plant species, 16 mammals, 22 birds, 50 reptiles and 33 amphibians that are found nowhere else on Earth. Some 333 species are listed on the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.

Within this region, Tanzania’s East Usambara mountains hold some of the most important remaining areas of forest. About 30 per cent of the landscape is forested – some 31,000 hectares in total. The two largest forest blocks are protected as government forest reserves, but the rest is made up of hundreds of smaller scattered fragments. The landscape is home to around 135,000 people spread across 35 villages, and the population is growing, increasing the pressure on the remaining forests.

To protect this globally important biodiversity and maintain the services that forests provide to people, in 2004 WWF and partners launched a long-term project to maintain, restore and reconnect forest ecosystems in East Usambara. From the outset, the project also aimed to improve the livelihoods of local people in a region where poverty levels are high.

With funding from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, WWF and TFCG worked with communities across the landscape to protect and plant trees and to develop alternative livelihoods to reduce the pressure on forests.

Empowering communities

One of the most important steps was to enable communities to take ownership of their forests by setting up village land forest reserves. Since the end of the colonial era, most forested land in Tanzania has officially belonged to the government. The reserves give legal control back to the communities. Local people are responsible for developing a management plan and bylaws for their reserves, which are approved by the village assembly and the local council.

Over the course of the project, WWF and TFCG helped set up 19 village reserves and six community forest reserves, which are managed at the level of the clan rather than the village. Between 2006 and 2012, forest clearance fell by 88 per cent as communities became more actively involved in preserving the forest. They protected their forests from other threats too: by November 2013, forest fires in local reserves had declined by 97 per cent, while illegal mining was reduced by 78 per cent as many villages prohibited it in their bylaws. Satellite images suggest that almost no deforestation is occurring across the landscape.

Added to this, several hundred small tree nurseries were established in villages across the landscape to grow a diverse range of native and exotic species. Villagers were given training both in growing the saplings and in understanding the use of different tree species – including to recover degraded lands, to protect water sources, for fuel and medicine, and in agroforestry systems that combine trees with crops. Over the 10 years of the project, around 1.2 million trees were planted in the landscape, and the nurseries continue to provide a source of saplings for villagers to plant out on their farms, along river banks and around their reserves.

None of this would have been possible, though, if local people hadn’t also benefited – which is why improving people’s livelihoods was a key part of the project. Local people, especially women, were given support to develop alternative sources of income, like growing camphor basil (a medicinal plant), beekeeping and butterfly farming (breeding butterflies within the landscape and selling the pupae to zoos and exhibits). In the villages, based on a sampling of local people, average incomes rose by an incredible 239 per cent between 2004 and 2013 as a result of these activities.

On top of this, newly created fish ponds provided local people with a good source of protein. To reduce the pressure on forests, four brick-pressing machines were bought so villagers could use bricks instead of timber to construct houses, and an increasing number of households started using fuel-efficient stoves – reaching 825 in 2008 and 3,465 in 2013. Microfinance schemes were introduced in five villages, allowing women and men to save and borrow money to set up and expand new enterprises.

A lasting legacy

After a decade of work in the region, the project ended in 2013. But although WWF is no longer active in the landscape, the project has had a lasting legacy. Recent visits show that communities in East Usambara continue to care for their forests and apply the skills and knowledge they acquired. And the project has important lessons for other parts of Tanzania and beyond, which are captured in a newly released report – part of a series detailing WWF’s experiences in forest landscape restoration.

In 2018, Tanzania announced a historic commitment to restore 5.2 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2030. The pledge is part of the African Forest Landscape Restoration (AFR100) Initiative under the Bonn Challenge, which aims to restore 100 million hectares in Africa and 350 million hectares globally by 2030. It’s an effort that’s urgently needed: according to recent national statistics, Tanzania is still losing around 469,000 hectares of forest per year – a 25 per cent increase from three years ago. Meanwhile, an estimated 12.5 million hectares, or about 13 per cent of Tanzania’s land area, has become degraded through deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, poor farming practices, overgrazing, erosion, soil pollution and biodiversity loss.

While meeting these challenges is a huge ask, experiences in East Usambara demonstrate that with long-term vision, commitment and collaboration, it’s possible for people and forests to thrive together.
A woman waters plants at a nursery in East Usambara Landscape, Tanzania
© Juha Pekka Kervinen / WWF