Thursday, September 30, 2010

Accessorizing Sustainability- An Economic Model for Forest Conservation

Cutting raw Palpretto logs from a sustainably managed forest. Every tiny piece of these logs will be used for something.

Small offcuts after the logs have been processed.

Turning the offcuts into small cosmetic jars

American model and activist Summer Rayn Oaks showing off the finished jars filled with sustainably harvested forest oils for skin care, made by subsidiary Bom Oils of Mozambique.

I have just returned from another trip to Mezimbite Forest Center, a project run by Ashoka Fellow Allan Schwarz. Schwarz has been pioneering projects around the city of Beira, Mozambique from his small replanted forest grove. The area has been hard hit by deforestation for the energy trade. Most of it has fallen for charcoal, to power the stoves of the rapidly growing urban population. This area is not unique. Throughout Africa, as I have mentioned in previous posts, there is a massive problem with deforestation.

Cosmetic jars for the Bom products, like lip balm, all made from wood offcuts from forests that are managed sustainably.

Charcoal is the main form of energy for most rural and urban households, and this has driven the continuing destruction of the forests. As the forests "run away" the cost of getting the charcoal into the cities rises, and the cost of charcoal goes up, making it more lucrative to cut the trees. It is an energy cycle that is completely un-sustainable, since virtually no one is replanting the forests. No one except for a few individuals like Schwarz.

He runs the biggest network of nurseries in the region which have been used to replant forests under his care. He pays for this by carefully removing certain trees from these well-managed forests and employing former charcoal cutters to be trained as skilled wood turners. Communities then see a greater value in their forests than making charcoal and have managed to keep some of them standing.

Tables for the European Market

One aspect of Schwarz's operation is value adding along the supply chain. Instead of selling this sustainable wood harvest at a premium, he has a working mill that employs between forty and a hundred people at any one time.

Every tiny little scrap of wood is used for something, from crochet needles for the eastern market, make-up compacts for American women, to bangles and jewelry for the French. A tree that falls for charcoal will end up being valued at roughly $1.50 for the end product of charcoal, and only 25 US cents for the cutters. With Schwarz's model however, a single tree may net thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, with that money equitably distributed to communities, workers and crafts-people. A craftsman at his facility earns about 250$ a month, more than twenty-times the average income in Mozambique.

Knitting needles made from wood offcuts at the Mezimbite Forest Center

Value adding at a local level is driving projects like this around the world. Schwarz believes that only by including local communities in this value chain can he create awareness that forests are more economically productive as a healthy system than as charcoal. Communities are the only guardians of their forest resources, but they must benefit directly, and in Mezimbite they are included as an important part of an economic system that puts special products in the hands of environmentally aware consumers.

Far from being clunky symbols of green, the art he and his team creates is sleek, gorgeous and just happens to make the world a better place. Go to his website, or the AD Schwarz design site and explore some his designs. This award winning designer, architect and forester has created a model of sustainable design that symbolises the finest of African conservation and craftsmanship.


  1. Dear Jeff,

    Thanks for sharing this interesting and inspiring story. I hope Schwarz's model will be adopted and replicated elsewhere.

    Let's touch base when you have a chance. I want to hear what your up to!

    Best regards,


  2. Thanks Kim,
    This is a model that is getting more interest from around the world. I just watched a great movie about a similar project in Guatemala:

    Feel free to give me a call anytime if you would like to chat. +27 82 420 0437

    Warm regards