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Tanzania: Communities conserve trees and forests by planting indigenous species

It’s midday in Chanjale village in northern Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro region. Cows are mooing, dogs are barking, and birds are chirping. The fog is so thick that it’s hard to see more than 10 metres in any direction.

Mariana Gaspar, a former primary school teacher, is busy gathering tree seedlings. She says: “I was a teacher, but now I call myself a tree nursery manager. In our village, we agreed to plant trees in order to improve our natural forests. We believe that this will help regulate rainfall patterns and conserve the soil.”

Ms. Gaspar says the climate in her village and in surrounding areas is much different than the climate in the last century when there used to be thicker fogs and morning dew. Today, these have all but vanished.

She explains: “Because of climate change, nowadays there is no dew, no rain, the land is almost barren, and the soil is poor. Crop yields are low every year. So our village decided to intensify planting trees to improve the situation.”

Because of the harsh climate, it’s difficult for farmers like Ms. Gaspar to grow crops like indigenous pumpkins, sugar cane, vegetables, and bitter herbs, or to raise animals. To decrease the impact of climate change, Ms. Gaspar is planting indigenous tree species. 

She says, “We have been advised by authorities to plant more trees in order to cool the weather, support rains, and conserve our environment.”

Ms. Gaspar says that not all trees are good at conserving the environment. She explains: “I avoid trees like eucalyptus and others that do not help to conserve water and the environment. I plant mkuyu (Ficus benghalensis), mvumo, which is strangler fig (Ficus aurea), and mlama (Combretum molle) because they are good at preserving groundwater and helping rivers thrive.” 

She says that mkuyu is one of the trees that local communities typically monitor when choosing where to dig a well because it is good at helping to conserve water in the soil.  

Ms. Gaspar explains, “The tree nurtures springs and wells because it has taproots and widespread lateral roots that hold wet soil and maintain wetness after rainfall.”

According to Ms. Gaspar, branches of mlama and strangler fig are longer, thicker, and wider than most tree species. In addition, their leaves create a canopy and help rainwater infiltrate into the soil slowly, without causing erosion. 

She says, “These trees help soils become wet, unlike eucalyptus trees that do not form a canopy.”

Leopold Mwakera, the former executive officer of the village, says that trees like mringaringa or Sudan teak (Cordia africana) have wide leaves that add to soil fertility when they decompose. 

Mseseve (Rauvolfia caffra) is a tree with medicinal value that flourishes around rivers and streams. It also boosts soil fertility when its many wide leaves decompose. 

Isaac Amani Massawe is the Archbishop of the Arusha Catholic Archdiocese. He says that planting specific indigenous tree species can help farmers conserve the environment.

He explains: “When I was in school, I learned about the types of trees and their value for the environment. In the process, I learned the types of plants that can help conserve water and soil. These are the trees communities should be planting.” 

Dr. Felician Kilahama is a former Director of Forestry and Beekeeping in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. He says there are many benefits of planting and caring for trees, and that people in areas with natural forests which contain native species should be taught how to conserve them.

Dr. Kilahama says some forested areas where beekeepers collect honey suffer a lot of damage when people cut down trees or accidentally burn the forest when they use smoke to harvest the honey.

He says: “Introducing stingless bee varieties and teaching communities how to breed them and use their honey without disturbing the environment is vital to conserving trees and forests because trees play an important role in preserving the climate and the environment.”

Photo: Ficus benghalensis in the botanic gardens of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Credit: Bernard Dupont.