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Despite conservation efforts, Tanzania’s forests still under pressure

Villagers in Tanzania use mobile monitoring to keep an eye on the forests. Photo courtesy USAID Africa

Villagers in Tanzania use mobile monitoring to keep an eye on the forests. Photo courtesy USAID Africa

  • Tanzania boasts one of the world’s largest tree covers.
  • Deforestation could cost the country’s economy up to $3.5 billion dollars by 2033.
  • Reforestation work is linked to sustainable environmental management, community development and poverty alleviation.

From huge expanses of Acacia trees to ancient Baobab trees, forests and woodlands cover more than half of Tanzania’s rugged landscape. In this East African nation, forests help fuel the national economy and provide sanctuary for the country’s abundant wildlife.

Tanzania is home to one of the largest tree covers in the world, but it’s at risk. A forest inventory by the Tanzania Forest Services Agency (TFS) in 2015 found that forests and wooded areas cover over 48 million hectares of land, more than the entire state of California. It also found that wood remains the main source of fuel for Tanzanians, even in urban areas.

Trees are felled for firewood or turned into charcoal. With a steady population growth rate over 3 percent, community forests designated to supply wood for fuel are unable to support the growing demand. That daily necessity is causing some serious problems, according to experts.

“Biomass energy provides 92 percent of energy needs, which is causing an unsustainable use of forest resources,” said Florian Mkeya, manager of natural forests at the TFS, who worked on the report.

There are other pressures on the environment. Since the 1970s, forests have increasingly been overtaken by farmland and degraded grassland ecosystems due to rampant deforestation. Much of that is due to illegal logging. The current deforestation rate in Tanzania is approaching 373,000 hectares per year, making it among the highest in East Africa.

The forests of Tanzania. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
The forests of Tanzania. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Even more alarming is an assessment of global forests by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which suggests that more than 5.86 million hectares of Tanzania’s forests were lost to deforestation and degradation between 2000 -2015. That represents approximately 10 percent of the country’s forests overall.

The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) national coordinator for forests in Tanzania, Isaac Malugu, agrees that there are serious problems.

“The top three factors causing deforestation are unsustainable charcoal production, shifting cultivation and illegal timber trading,” Malugu told Mongabay.

According to Malugu, the expanse of charcoal sourcing has grown significantly.

“In the 1990’s charcoal was being sourced from a radius of about 60 kilometers around Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s major urban center, but in the late 90’s we saw that radius rapidly grow to about 300 kilometers,” Malugu said.

That’s an increased radius of under 40 miles to about 186 miles in just a few years.

Map of Tanzania. Source: CIA Library
Map of Tanzania. Source: CIA Library

Agricultural practices play a role, too. Shifting cultivation and slash-and-burn agriculture, in which farmers cultivate a plot temporarily and then abandon it for another plot, are the most popular farming systems in Tanzania.

In the slash-and-burn method, areas of natural forests are cut down and burned to create fields.

According to the World Bank, land used for agricultural purposes grew by more than six percent from 2000 to 2013. It now accounts for about 45 percent of Tanzania’s land area. Efforts have been made to stem the tide of land clearance, such as USAID’s program to teach villagers participatory land use planning and land use mobile forest monitoring.

Illegal timber trade

The illegal timber trade is also having a devastating impact on the country’s forests and economy. According to a 2007 report by TRAFFIC, an organization dedicated to monitoring the illegal wildlife trade, Tanzania lost more than 58 million US dollars in revenue from illegally traded timber from 2004 to 2005. The decade-old figures are the most recent nationwide numbers available on Tanzania’s timber trade.

The timber trade is fueled by demand from China and the Middle East and made possible by corruption and lack of enforcement, according to the report.

Participatory village land planning use in Tanzania. Photo courtesy USAID Africa
Participatory village land planning use in Tanzania. Photo courtesy USAID Africa

Part of the problem also stems from improved infrastructure, such as roads. In 2003, the government completed construction on the Mkapa Bridge over the Rufiji River and connected the southern part of the country with Dar es Salaam.

This opened an important pathway for large trucks to access forests which were previously difficult to reach by road. While some of the illegal timber is used in construction projects or to make furniture within the country, most is smuggled out through Zanzibar, an island just off the coast of mainland Tanzania.

The Port of Zanzibar has been a major trading post for centuries and is an important channel between Africa and Asia.

Zanzibar Island, just off the coast of Tanzania. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Zanzibar Island, just off the coast of Tanzania. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

According to recent WWF findings, East Africa is on track to become a global hotspot for the illegal timber trade in the coming decades. The global trade already has an economic value estimated to be worth between 30 and 100 billion US dollars and makes up 10-30 percent of the wood trade.

Conservation efforts

In 2002, the Tanzanian government passed a new national forest policy which transferred power over forest resources back to the community level and involved citizens in forest conservation.

As part of its environmental strategy, the government requested that every district council plant and care for at least 1.5 million trees every year. However, the rate of reforestation still seriously lags behind the deforestation rate.

“Millions of trees are planted every year, but with growing demands from expanding population and poverty, harsh growing conditions and lack of tending of planted trees – these disqualify the efforts to restore the degraded forest land,” said the TFS’s Mkeya.

WWF argues that proactive efforts are making an impact.

“The government is moving in and trying to address the problem, they’ve done much research, restructured how forests are managed and introduced new policy,” said the conservation organization’s Malugu. “They also allow NGOs like WWF to help them by running forestry governance and environmental awareness projects and promoting community-based forest management.”

Women in Tanzania with seedlings for reforestation. Photo by USAID Africa
Women in Tanzania with seedlings for reforestation. Photo by USAID Africa

He added that WWF and other partners are working with the government to curb illegal commercial logging.

In September 2015, the TSF joined forces with its counterparts in Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and Uganda to sign the Zanzibar Declaration on Illegal Trade in Timber and Forest Products. The declaration calls on the governments of East Africa to work together to reduce the cross border trade of illegal timber.

But despite various conservation efforts by players in government and civil society, many believe more needs to be done.

Experts such as those who authored the TFS forest inventory report recommend addressing what they call a “wood supply deficit.” Providing people with cheap alternative energy sources to alleviate the demand for charcoal and firewood is a key focus.

Work that connects the conservation of the forest to the livelihoods of local populations are also promising. Wild coffee plants that grow in the forests of southwest Tanzania have been supplemented with additional plants that live under forest tree cover. Local cooperatives harvest the coffee, which can sell for a premium price on the specialty coffee market. The downside is the lack of diverse forest vegetation.

Learning from REDD and REDD+

Since 2009, Tanzania has participated in many projects from the UN program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and Conservation of Forest Stocks, Sustainable Management of Forests and Enhancement of Forest Carbon Stocks (REDD+). Both programs are based on the concept of rewarding developing countries for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A coffee plantation in Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A coffee plantation in Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A REDD+ report from 2015 warned that deforestation could cost Tanzania’s national economy about 5.6 trillion Tanzanian shillings ($3.5 billion US dollars) by the year 2033. Shortly thereafter in mid-2016, the government established the National Carbon Monitoring Centre, which will allow Tanzania to benefit from future international carbon trading mechanisms.

“Our efforts to reforest the land are vital to sustainable environmental management, community development and poverty alleviation in Tanzania as well as to contribute to sequester Co2 and reduce emission of greenhouse gases,” said Mkeya.

Photo: Villagers in Tanzania use mobile monitoring to watch over the forest. Courtesy USAID Africa



“NAFORMA Report 2015,” Tanzania Forest Service Agency,

“Global Forest Resource Assessment 2015,” Second Edition, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,

Zanzibar Declaration on Illegal Timber and Trade in Forest Products,

“Forestry, Governance and National Development: Lessons Learned from a Logging Boom in Southern Tanzania,” 2007. Milledge, Simon A., Gelvas, Ised K., Ahrends, Antje., TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa

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