Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tanzania -Land of Trees, Sort Of

Charcoal made from Tanzania's hardwood above, and Green Resource's tree farming project in the central highlands of the country.

I am back from my week in Tanzania. I was deep in the bush and far from computers and internet connections. It is possible to do that these days but it did involve a three hour flight to Dar Es Salaam from Johannesburg, an eleven hour drive in a 4x4, then another four hours on a road barely worthy of the term. I learned a lot during my hectic fourteen-hour work days. I am producing, directing and shooting this documentary alone, so I am busy and have a lot to process, not only physically but mentally as well.

Tanzania’s environment, like much of Southern Africa’s, is in crisis. The booming cities of the region rely on bio-fuel. Not the type that we think of in the developed world, made from old frying oil or crops grown for diesel, but the old traditional kind. Charcoal. Charcoal is essentially solidified carbon. Thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, are cutting down the hardwood forests of the region and making charcoal out of them and millions of people rely on it every day, to cook, to stay warm, to live. The charcoal funnels into cities along crowded roads, stacked in bags hundreds high, each bag representing three massive hardwood trees.

The method they use, digging pits, throwing in rough logs, and letting it burn without oxygen only yields about 10% of the energy in the tree when the end-user uses it for fuel. In the process, according to experts like Ashoka fellow Alan Schwarz, hundreds of thousands of hectares of hardwood forests are disappearing every year in each country. As development takes off, which is has, that number rises. These trees are not being replaced. The cutting of forests, the burning of them into the sky and transport of what is left is having a serious impact on the region’s ability to not only contain it’s carbon, but also on the energy dead-end that such use implies. When the trees are gone, how will the people survive? What will they use for energy?

In a perfect world, the trees would be replanted, thus making a carbon-neutral closed system. But in Africa today not one government has a wide-spread tree-planting program. In Tanzania I visited a program created by Norwegian company Green Resources to help address this disparity. The program is essentially using fast-growing exotic tree species as carbon crops and local energy sources. They also make carbon-neutral charcoal for the local market out of the waste of the logging and timber operations.

A hardwood tree, depending upon it’s type, can take from twenty to sixty years to grow to maturity. There is every reason to begin the replanting of these species as soon as possible, but in the meantime Green Resources is planting thousands of hectares of species like pine and eucalyptus that mature in about ten years. They are also giving away about twenty percent of the their seedling production to local communities, so that each farmer plants a woodlot, where they can grow their own fuel and also make cash by selling the timber. It has been a huge success, and I saw woodlots all over their communities, so different from even close neighbors, who live in what amounts to little more than a desert.

By creating a bio-fuel economy based on quickly renewable species (like these fast-growing crop-like trees), rather than on cutting down and burning ancient trees, Green Resources has succeeded in slowing forest destruction and giving people some sort of alternative. That is something governments across the region should learn from. It’s a stop-gap measure, and not a replacement for the hardwood, but it is working. Many environmentalists complain that these are invasive trees that choke of water supplies, but in the high-rainfall area that Green Resources has chosen, this stop-gap solution seems to be working.

Every household in the region, not just in a few disparate communities, could plant trees, and use their own timber for their energy needs. This would preserve the remnants of the vast hardwood forests and allow locals to profit from them as valuable resources. When well- managed, the true forests can uplift communities by sustainable harvesting of the precious hardwood, selling forest products to the developed world, and of course selling the carbon credits gained by their preservation.

This last part, as I have learned in the last week, is tricky.

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