Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wet, Damp Mozambiquan Forest

Lucia Mercia da Conceicao Chande and Alan Schwarz in the Nhamainga Forest in Mozambique. This little patch is a seed bank that will help replant some of the forest, providing fuel and income to local communities.

Its hot and wet in Mozambique in the southern summer. Very hot, and very wet. My hands are sweating so much as I write this at eight in the morning that I am worried they will kill the keypad on my old Macbook. I am literally sleeping in a sand box half full of water. My passport is wet, my clothes have not been dry for the last four days since I arrived, and both my cameras need urgent assistance, though surprisingly they are both still working.

This is Alan Schwarz's stomping ground. This mountain of a man, who has been running the Mezimbite Forest Project for the last fourteen years, has succeeded in saving thousands of hectares of forests, and uplifting communities in the process. He employs fifty laborers in a complex near the Beira roadside, and took this badly degraded land and replanted it with some of the forest tree species that used to be abundant here.

He started from one side of the property and its a history of reforestion, from grassland into shrubs and finally an almost-restored forest. Schwarz is a forester and architect, and does not only feel that forests are worth saving because they suck in carbon. "Communities that I work with make their money from trees. A lot of money. So when I give them the chance and the seedlings to replant them, they understand that. They get it!" He stands in the rain, his clothes molding off his back, and looks like Kurtz from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But there is a method to his madness. He feels that forests can be saved, and is on the ground working, doing just that.

Imagine a forest that stretched six hundred kilometers from the Zambezi to the Save River. It covered thousands of hectares, it covered the Pungue floodplain almost all the way to the ocean. It was bigger than western Colorado. Eleven times the size of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Lucia Mercia da Conceicao Chande, at 23, takes care of what is left. Called the Nhamainga Forest, it covers eleven hectares. Almost everything else is gone. This small, precious piece harbors three different kinds of monkey and represents all the tree species that filled the massive Miombo woodland, dominated by Missanda and Misassa trees. It is now a seed bank, used by the Lusalite Life Foundation, which Chande runs, and people like Schwarz who are trying to bring back some of this vanished forest.

"Working with the communities is challenging", explains Chande, sitting on a tree stump in the forest in between downpours. "We are seeing after two years how the communities around this last patch of forest are starting to realize they have to replant the trees and replace the wood they use. It is a slow process though, and often very frustrating." Chande also teaches environmental education to the children from the local communities.

Chande wants to bring tourists from nearby Beira to enjoy this last little piece of forest, and take away a greater understanding of what has been lost to the area, so that they will help bring at least some of the trees back by replanting. But there is a problem. The signs that she and the community have made that help people find the little patch have been stolen. Its probably not malice that drove the theft, she says. "They were made from wood, so they have been used as fuel in someone's fireplace. This is what we are up against. They will sneak into the forest at night and even take the chair I am sitting on".

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