Saturday, November 27, 2010

Are You Part of the Solution?

A healthy Forest near Dondo, left is rapidly turned into wasteland, right, by corrupt logging and charcoal making, followed by intentionally-set fires to clear the land for two seasons of cultivation.

I am just back from the Mezimbite Forest Center in Mozambique. I am working on a long term project there, chronicling the work of the project and its founder, Allan Schwarz. Schwarz is trying to slow the destruction of Mozambique's woodlands. No one knows how much forest is being lost but Ashoka Fellow Schwarz says at the current rate of loss, within fifteen years most of the country's remaining forest will be logged and burned out of existence.

As I have mentioned many times in this blog, the forest is mostly being lost to power the energy needs of rural and suburban people of Southern Africa. Rural people earn rare money by making the forest into charcoal, and selling it to urban dwellers. They also move onto these cleared areas and farm for a few seasons before the land fails, and then they move on, leaving scrubland in their wake.

Even though I have been to the area many times, the actual frontlines of the forest destruction is far from the project, which has been focusing on replanting areas already lost. But last week I went looking for the "battle front" of the destruction and I ran into an unholy alliance. Loggers, working for a Chinese company, were clearing out the big hardwood trees, and the charcoal makers were felling the small ones, piling them up into big mud-covered roasters, making charcoal on a huge scale out of what was left of the forest.

It affected me deeply, and today I spent the day in a deep hole of unhappiness. There is really no one in the area other than Schwarz trying to stop this cycle of destruction, which is being played out on a massive scale throughout the region. Why aren't the logging companies forced to replant the forest? Why are they not working sustainably, cutting only what the forest can sustain? Why doesn't the money they give the government help support local communities so they are not forced to hammer their only resource, turning it into charcoal and unproductive farmland?

Schwarz is only one man with one project, and try as he might he can't make even a small dent into what is going on just in his province. The enemies (corruption, greed and mismanagement) are too strong and it is clear that without an international effort, they will prevail.

Americans and Europeans buy hardwood flooring from China all the time in big warehouse stores for as little as a dollar per square-foot. Where do clients think these woods come from? China? Not on your life. They come from Mozambique and other corrupt countries in Africa, and the cutting of these woods and the Chinese loggers presence here leads to other losses like poaching.

In South Africa 198 Rhino have been lost this year to poaching. Elephants and many many other animals are being wiped out in Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania on a scale never seen before by members of these logging syndicates. Much of this destruction is funneled out of the countries by corrupt officials in cahoots with the logging workers.

But strangely, unlike the 1980s, there is no huge international outcry.

The silence of people in Europe, America, and other democracies is astounding. That lack of interest and outrage is as much a part of the poachers arsenal as high caliber bullets and corruption. And that means your inattention, your lack of interest. In our resounding silence and lack of outrage these nefarious killers of biodiversity are making a mockery of conservation on an international scale.

When you buy hardwood from China, you are paying for this death, it is your fault directly. There is a war against the last bastions of nature on our planet and if you are not part of the solution, you are the problem. The sides are clear. Recycling at home is not enough. You need to be informed about your decisions because you are responsible, your money is driving this destruction. And yet being a smart consumer is only part of the solution. Everyone must become an active participant in stopping this, because if you are not active you really are the problem.

So now you may be sitting there thinking, "but what can I do?" "I try to be thoughtful, and recycle, and walk to the store more and bring my own bags instead of using paper or plastic. Isn't this enough?" From someone at the battle zone, watching things you and your children will never see simply disappear, I can tell you that it is not.

But here is the good news. You don't have to do anything different, or tie yourself to a tree to stop the loggers or live in penury (yet). Right now all you have to do is your job. If you are an architect join Architects Without Borders and design appropriate low-cost solar housing for the 3rd world in your spare time. If you are an accountant, create a group of accountants that audits and follows the paper trail of multinational corporations who are paying for the widespread destruction. Name and shame offenders on blogs, Twitter and newspaper websites. As I said before, nefarious projects and poachers operate with our silent consent because we do not choose to practice oversight.

If you are a writer, take time out every month to write something about the environment, and research NGOs like the Mezimbite Forest Project that are important parts of a global solution, sharing them with the rest of the world. If you are a politician, teacher, librarian, used car salesman or concerned parent, do your job. Do it for our home, the Earth, on a regular basis.

Stock the library with consciousness raising books and articles and create an email newsletter that shares that list with your community. Troll the internet looking for news articles that are raising these issues, and share them through social networking sites and put pressure on companies bankrolling this chaos to stop. Everyone can be a part of the solution to this problem.

Sticking our collective heads in the sand will not make this problem go away. Our planet is really in peril. Our coastlines are under threat, our migrating species are dying, our oceans are being plundered on a scale that is hard for experts to measure, and our forests are being wiped out of existence for the profit of a few. Sticking our collective heads in the sand will not make this problem go away. Get active, get involved, get informed and stop being part of the problem.

Skeletal trees hang in the sun after loggers and charcoal makers have reduced this forest to ruin near Dondo, Mozambique.

Chinese logging companies remove hardwood trees and the charcoal makers move into the forests, creating a double-destruction cocktail that leaves the land bare and unproductive.

Forests are wiped out after charcoal makers and logging companies level forests. The charcoal makers like this one are aware the forest is in danger, but they say, "we are poor, what can we do?"

After logging and charcoal making few of the hardest trees are left standing, their skeletons seeming to reach imploringly to the sky.


  1. Excellent article!!! Well-done!
    It came to our attention, when in Mozambique last, that if one wanted to buy land, the easiest way is to get a concession with the government for a piece of that last virgin woodland, with the requirement that you have to fell the trees on it by a certain time.... who buys it is another story. It's the 'cheapest' and 'easiest' way to obtain land there.....
    Explains the 40+ truckloads of whole trees that passed us on the drive back to Malawi....

  2. Meg O'ShaughnessyNovember 29, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    Hi Jeff All the best to you and all in Cancun - in love and solidarity

    Meg O'Shaughnessy from Paonia

  3. Thank you for reminding me to do more than the usual to help save our planet. I run a foundation that supports a grass roots program near Nampula, Mozambique that helps street children in the area. We are currently working on a solar powered water pump from an existing well and solar lights for the dorm that some street boys live in. I feel that in this situation it was a great opportunity to use a more sustainable method to provide both water and electricity to the dorm. Luckily I have many options to be more able to make the right choices where I live, and it is my responsibility.

  4. HI Meg,
    I won't be in Cancun this year, wanted to focus on some finishing of projects here in Southern Africa. I will be at COP17 in South Africa next year though...and will be hosting some great projects of my own -and others both at the meeting and in nearby venues.

    Well done Tiffany, great inspiration. I should be around Nampula next year so lets keep in touch. I would love to stop by and visit.

    Thanks for the heads up on the land/logging fiasco in Mozambique Malaika I will follow it up and let you know.