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The Seeds of a Good Anthropocene? Community-based conservation initiatives beyond commercialization

Anthropogenic activities have driven planet Earth into a new geological era – the ‘Anthropocene’. Our actions and practices have been reshaping landscapes and ecosystems in different parts of the world. Species and ecosystems are increasingly disappearing at an alarming rate due to some destructive anthropogenic activities (e.g. uncontrolled harvesting of forest products, unsustainable farming practices, poaching of wild animals, etc.). Ecological processes are highly disrupted in most ecosystems globally. Ecosystem services supporting livelihood, especially in developing countries are also dwindling. Ahead of us is a choice of whether to create a good and habitable Anthropocene or a miserable and inhabitable one.

To create a good Anthropocene, human beings need to learn on how to live in harmony with nature. We need to embrace actions and practices that can safeguard various components of nature. We need to sustain nature-given services that are crucial for our survival. This is what Bennett et al. (2016)[1], refer to as the ‘Seeds of a Good Anthropocene’. Already, some good seeds of Anthropocene have been planted by a variety of actors. Good examples can be drawn from developed and developing countries, urban and rural areas as well as among forest-dwellers and people adjacent to forests, savannah, grasslands, deserts and semi-deserts, woodlands, wetlands, lake basins, and river basins.

As a member of NEPSUS project (New Partnerships for Sustainability), I am part of a research group on forest management in Tanzania. In this essay, I share what I consider to be some ‘Seed of a Good Anthropocene’ demonstrated by villagers at Mchakama village in Kilwa District, Tanzania, one of the eight villages we are studying. Villagers, through the Village Council and the Village Natural Resource Committee (VNRC), have established a tree nursery for a plant species that was declared extinct by the IUCN in year 1998 (Erythrina schliebenii, Figure 1)[2].

Figure 1: A tree nursery of the Erythrina schliebenii at Mchakama village, Kilwa District, Tanzania (Photo- Elikana Kalumanga and Mette Fog Olwig, 2018)

In Kiswahili (the national language of Tanzania), the Erythrina schliebenii is called Mnungunungu, simply because the tree has some spines like porcupines (Nungunungu in Kiswahili). It is named after the German botanist Hans-Joachim Schlieben, who collected the first specimen for preservation between 1934 and 1935 at Lake Lutamba near Lindi. In the 1940s, however, most of the areas near Lake Lutamba were converted into cashew nut plantations. As a consequence, the habitat for Erythrina schliebenii was severely reduced. Subsequent botanical studies in Lindi Region failed to record any occurrence of Erythrina schliebenii. However, a 2011 expedition to the Namatimbili forest near Kilwa, led by Frank Mbago of the Botany Department, University of Dar es Salaam, rediscovery the Erythrina schliebenii[1].

Briefly, in this essay, I will explain where the Erythrina schliebenii seedlings are planted from the nurseries, the people who take care of the planted Erythrina schliebenii in the wild, the challenges affecting transportation of the seedlings from the nurseries to the wild including their growth in the wilderness, and the factors causing rapid disappearance of the Erythrina schliebenii. Lastly, I pose some key questions related to sustainability of the Seeds of a good Anthropocene in this part of the global South in the absence of donor or other external support. Can communities sustain the good seeds of Anthropocene on their own?

Where the Erythrina schliebenii seedlings are planted from the nurseries, and by whom?

From the tree nursery, the Erythrina schliebenii seedlings are planted in a Village Land Forest Reserve. Mchakama is one of the villages which have agreed to establish Village Land Forest Reserves (VLFR) on their lands. About 1,525 hectares of village land has been set aside to establish the VLFR in Mchakama. The VLFRs represent an effort to decentralize forest management and shift responsibility from central to local government (at village level), and allow the involvement of an array of state and non-state actors to support the communities in forest management. In Mchakama village, 10% of the VLFR is zoned strictly for biodiversity protection. Zoning of an area for biodiversity conservation (10% of the VLFR) is done in accordance with the guidelines, standards and procedures set by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The Mchakama is among the villages sharing the FSC-Group Certificate Scheme (GSC) managed by the MCDI (an active conservation NGO operating in Lindi Region with headquarters in Kilwa District). To date, the villages in Kilwa (including the Mchakama village) are among the first and still the only villages in Africa managing certified community-managed forests by the FSC. Therefore, to be precise, the Erythrina schliebenii seedlings in Mchakama are planted within the 10% set aside primarily for biodiversity zone in the VLFR. Management of the VLFR is done by the villagers through their village council and the Village Natural Resources Committee (VNRC-the forest manager). Regular patrols are done by the VNRC members in order to combat illegal activities in the VLFR.

On the challenges affecting transportation of the Erythrina Schliebenii seedlings from the nurseries to the wild and their growth in the wilderness

In March 2018, the NEPSUS forest group visited the MCDI headquarters at Kilwa Masoko (Kilwa District Headquarters) and met Mr. Makalla Jasper, the MCDI-Chief Executive Officer. Before asking questions about challenges facing the villagers in raising the Erythrina Schliebenii and transportation of seedlings to the wild, we wanted to know how the tree nursery at Mchakama village was established and on whose initiative. Mr. Makalla explained to us that the tree nursery had been established by villagers with support from the MCDI in collaboration with WWF-Tanzania Program Office.

Our next question to Makalla was why did they select Mchakama village out of the entire Kilwa District? He responded that Mchakama is where there are some Erythrina Schliebenii trees still existing in a national forest reserve (Mitundumbea National Forest Reserve), which borders the village. Occurrence of the Erythrina Schliebenii trees in Mchakama-Mitundumbea landscape enabled the MCDI and WWF-TPO to support planting of the Erythrina Schliebenii in the Mchakama VLFR. Different from other tree species in Kilwa district, E. schliebenii are mostly found in areas with a lot of coral rag, which is not widely distributed in Kilwa.

Therefore, MCDI and their partners plan to raise 10,000 of the Erythrina Schliebenii seedlings and to plant them inside the VLFR, with the help fo local villagers. Some funds from the MCDI that were mobilized from different conservation donors are being channeled to Mchakama village. They are used for raising the seedlings at the nursery and facilitating transport and plantation in the VLFR. By March 2018, a total of 4,300 seedlings had been planted in the VLFR. About 6,000 seedlings were still at the tree nursery (Figure 1). Rain was a major challenge that negatively affected the transfer of seedlings from the tree nursery to the VLFR. It is hard to access the biodiversity conservation zone during the rainy seasons. In March 2018, Mr. Makalla was already worried and concerned about the rains. Some of the seedlings were already overdue for planting in the forest. ‘If the rain stops for at least three days, we can go and plant the seedlings’, Mr. Makalla said. In the worst-case scenario, Mr. Makalla still insisted on following through with the plan: ‘We are going to put the seedlings in one car and then bring more people in another car with spades to push the car when it gets stuck. We have to plant the seedlings no matter what; we have invested a lot of resources in raising these seedlings’.

Inaccessibility due to poor roads during the rainy season was not the only problem affecting planting and survival of the seedlings in Mchakama landscape. The presence of monkeys in Mchakama forests was another problem. Mr. Makalla informed us that whenever monkeys see people planting trees on Kilwa lands, they think it is cassava. When they realize it is not cassava, they uproot the plants and throw them away. Last year (2017), monkeys uprooted about 1,000 seedlings. It was a huge loss. However, villagers found a solution to the monkey problem using their indigenous knowledge. Villagers prepared an odorous material made from fish scales, water and dirty oils, which monkeys dislike. After a week, this mixture becomes as resistant as glue. It is usually used to patch holes when a boat is leaking. However, when applied to the seedlings, the leaves sometimes change color.

Furthermore, forest fires also pose risks on the future of the seedlings. However, the solution to unplanned wildfires, early burning, is already being applied. In Kilwa District, early burning was introduced through the REDD+ project (Reduced Emission from Deforestation and Degradation) that was implemented by the MCDI in different villages, including Mchakama. Practically, early burning is done deliberately early in the dry season (end of April and early May) when grasses and tree leaves are moist to reduce the chances and extent of dry season uncontrolled forest fires, which are known to heavily contribute to carbon emissions and to several ecological disruption. In other words, early burning (sometimes known are prescribed and/or planned burning) is set deliberately in order to control the occurrence and spread of more-impactful fires in a particular fire-prone landscape. In Kilwa, early burning is done as part of their carbon-offsetting set of activities.

On the factors causing rapid disappearance of the Erythrina schliebenii in the wild

Locally, different parts of the Erythrina schliebenii are used for medicinal purposes as a cure to various diseases (including impotence), said one of the elders at Mchakama village. In March 2018, one kilogram of the mnungunungu seeds was sold at 50,000 Tshs (roughly 25 US$). China is one of the international markets for these seeds. This proves that both local and international forces are behind the rapid disappearance of the Erythrina schliebenii trees in the wild, the elder insisted.

Figure 2: Members of the NEPSUS team forest group standing in front of one of the surviving Erythrina schliebenii tree in the wild, Kilwa, Tanzania

On the sustainability of the seeds of a good Anthropocene in Mchakama village

The villagers of Mchakama village are among the groups that are trying their best to protect the extinction of global species from their natural environment. This is great news. Erythrina schliebenii had been declared extinct in the natural environment. Previously, Erythrina schliebenii was known to be present only near Lake Lutamba, where they were recorded by Hans-Joachim Schlieben in 1934/1935.

In Mchakama village, the NEPSUS forest group managed to visit a place a where we could physically observe a large Erythrina schliebenii tree (Figure 2). On a transect walk, we also managed to observe how the Erythrina schliebenii seedlings are planted in the 10% biodiversity zone within the VLFR (Figure 3). Planted seedlings were growing nicely, proving that gardenification of wildland is possible. That was very impressive, but raised a number of conservation-related questions.

Figure 3: Posing for a photo on our way to the Mchakama VLFR, accompanied by a member of the VNRC (first right) and the village chairperson (second-left): Photo by the VNRC Secretary.

  • Will the villagers propagate the seeds of a good Anthropocene on their own in the absence of donor funding and any external support? Do they have the capacity to further mobilize, collect Erythrina schliebenii seeds, raise the seedlings in the nurseries and then plant the seedlings either in the VLFR and/or anywhere in their village lands?

  • The medicinal value of the Erythrina schliebenii has not changed. Will the villagers in Mchakama manage to control illegal harvesting of the Erythrina schliebenii in their natural environment and even in the VLFR?

  • Erythrina schliebenii tree is one of many endemic and critically endangered species in the Kilwa landscape. Compared to many other places in Tanzania, tiny and fragmented coastal forests in Kilwa landscape are part of a global biodiversity hotspot (the Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa Biodiversity Hotspot). To what extent setting aside the 10% of the VLFR for biodiversity conservation is enough to incorporate the remaining tiny patches of coastal forests in Mchakama and other villages in Kilwa District? This question calls for far-looking local-level biodiversity conservation efforts beyond commercialization because VLFRs were established for commercial purposes (timber concessions). Remember, that villagers agreed to join the FSC-Group Certificate Scheme also to benefit from the promised premium price from their forest products.

  • How can local-level biodiversity conservation efforts be linked to national, regional and international biodiversity conservation efforts, especially those targeting critical global ecosystems?

Some responses to these questions are straightforward. Some require science-policy dialogues as well as the engagement of a number of state and non-state actors across scales to agree on the way forward. Very obviously, however, is the reality that continuous financial and technical support is required in order to safeguard the remaining endemic and critically endangered species in the Kilwa landscape, especially in coral rags and the tiny and fragmented areas of still existing coastal forests. To a large extent, enhanced biodiversity conservation efforts in the Kilwa landscape would safeguard rapidly disappearing endemic species, but also secure various ecosystem services required by the rural poor in Kilwa for their livelihood and survival. It is from the forest and nature that the villagers in Kilwa District obtain timber for local use and sale, honey, medicinal plants, mushrooms, and natural vegetables, among others (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Some vegetables collected from agriculture-forest ecotone in Kilwa District, Tanzania (Photo by Fadhili Bwagalilo, 2018)

[1] Bennett et al (2016). Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene. Front Ecol Environ 2016; 14(8): 441–448, doi:10.1002/fee.1309

[2] IUCN SSC East African Plants Red List Authority. 2012. Erythrina schliebenii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T32916A2827908. Downloaded on 14 September 2018.

[3] Clarke, G. P., Burgess, N.D., Mbago, F, M., Mligo, C., and Mackinder, B (2011). Two extinct trees rediscovered near Kilwa, Tanzania. Journal of East African Natural History, 100 (1&2): 133-140.

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