For more than two years, park warden Pedro Muagura drove up a dirt road every month to Mozambique’s conflict-ridden Mount Gorongosa to secretly monitor a daring experiment to reforest the mountain’s parched land.
Equipped with coffee seedlings his mother gave him, he began planting, making sure he planted indigenous trees to shield the coffee seedlings and in time restore the mountain’s forests. Only when his first crop of green coffee beans began turning cherry red in 2011 did he reveal his plan: give people a reason to protect forests and they will.
Mr. Muagura says, “People used to say ‘the forest is for the future’—but here the forest is for now.”
In 2021, communities around Gorongosa planted more than 260,000 coffee trees and 20,000 indigenous trees. A 2022 harvest yielded 16 tonnes of coffee from more than 800 small-scale farmers, 40% of whom were women.
The work to both protect nature and keep the local economy humming stems from the park’s unusual conservation vision, which melds nature conservation, tech innovation, and scientific research with community education and job creation. Gorongosa National Park represents a shift away from the “fortress conservation” mentality that involves barricading communities away from nature reserves and the tourists who visit them.
But Gorongosa was not always a success story.
Sixteen years of civil war in Mozambique in the late 20th century killed an estimated one million people before a peace accord ended the fighting in 1992. Gorongosa was one of the conflict sites, and was left void of almost all wildlife. Population growth and urbanization in surrounding communities threatened the remaining biodiversity as indigenous forests were cut down for firewood, agriculture, and housing. Poaching remained a concern.
In 2004, American philanthropist Greg Carr visited the site and decided to put millions of dollars into trying to do conservation differently. After seeing the park’s largely empty grasslands, riverine forests, and savanna woodlands, Mr. Carr said he understood its potential for restoration. He wrote in the park’s guest book, “This is a spectacular park and it could become one of the best in Africa with some assistance.”
In 2008, he signed a public-private partnership with the government to help restore and protect the park, covering nearly 405,000 hectares of land. The contract was later extended to run until 2043.
Since the inception of the project, more than 250 scientists from more than 40 universities and other research institutions have worked in the park.
On a near-weekly basis, children from surrounding communities are brought into the park to learn about conservation, go on game drives, and meet animals such as pangolins rescued from traffickers. Park staff say that education for local people is crucial so they can better understand what is being protected and why.
Scientists and researchers have documented over 1,500 species of plants in the park and found about 100 new-to-science insects, bats, and frogs.
Tropical deforestation contributes about 10% of all human-created emissions driving global warming, according to the United Nations. That makes finding ways to curb it crucial to protect both the climate and nature.
Near Gorongosa, about 10,000 eco-friendly cookstoves have been donated to communities close to the park to reduce the amount of firewood people need to cut to cook meals.
Elisa Langa is the park’s director of human development and leads projects that tackle an array of social issues, including forced, underage marriage. She says, “It is not easy—but without the development of people, we cannot protect nature.”
Mount Gorongosa is slowly turning green as its trees grow taller. Locals report healthier soil and wildlife returning to the buffer zone around the reserve. But ensuring ongoing conservation of the area as the local population grows—which can boost pressure for tree felling, farming, and poaching—is a challenge. Mrs. Langa acknowledges, “People need to eat, now.”
Mr. Carr says one of the most important lessons he has learned at Gorongosa in trying to ensure that both biodiversity and people benefit in the long run is to “be respectful, be patient, let (locals) make the decisions.”
Mr. Muagura is now famous locally for his tree planting and forestry expertise. He says more successes like Gorongosa’s are urgently needed. He adds, “Protected areas are a way of giving the world a chance to minimize climate change. These are our environmental banks.”
This story was adapted from an article written by Kim Harrisberg for Context and titled “Trees, tech, and people help Mozambican park reverse nature losses.” To read the full story, go to: https://www.context.news/nature/long-read/trees-tech-and-people-help-mozambican-park-reverse-nature-losses 
Photo: Julius Samuel, who helps lead a coffee-growing project on Mount Gorongosa, Mozambique, stands beneath indigenous trees growing over the tree nursery on the mountain, May 26, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg