25 December 2012

Tanzania: Sebastian Chuwa - an Ideal 'Mpingo' Ecologist

SEBASTIAN Chuwa is a man with a vision for his country, his people and the future generations who will one day inherit this land.

For 30 years, Chuwa has been actively studying environmental problems in this country and the solutions he has found offer results that benefit not only the land, but all the populations that depend on it for life and sustenance.

He says that his methods are based on the two primary objectives of community activism - organizing people to address their problems at a local level and youth education - influencing the teaching of conservation in schools, beginning at the primary level.

Using these two interlocking philosophies, he has inspired large groups of community volunteers to come together to solve not only their environmental problems, but problems of poverty alleviation, women's empowerment and youth employment in Moshi Rural District.

His efforts on behalf of African blackwood have created the first large-scale replanting effort for the species. According to Chuwa, the ever-expanding nature of his work has given him and his community a reputation as leaders in the field of conservation.

In 1996 James Harris, an ornamental turner from Texas, USA and him founded the African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP), to establish educational and replanting efforts for the botanical species Dalbergia melanoxylon, known as mpingo in its home range of eastern Africa. The wood of mpingo is widely used by African carvers and by European instrument manufacturers for the production of clarinets, flutes, oboes, bagpipes and piccolos.

Very little was publicly known about the plight of African blackwood until 1992, when a British produced documentary, The Tree of Music, called the attention of the world to the fact that the African carvers and instrument makers alike began to worry about the future of the tree. Large-growth trees are increasingly scarce and in many areas the species has reached commercial extinction.

Chuwa has already been featured in a documentary gazing across a fire ravaged plain, expressing his concern for mpingo's future. His first nursery efforts for the species are documented, as he is shown with 200 mpingo seedlings which he has germinated in small pots. "My 200 seedlings are obviously not enough to make much difference compared with what is being lost. But next year I hope to have 20,000 seedlings to plant.

It is vital for me to act now rather than wait until the future when things have reached a crisis," he says. In 1995, a conservationist from the United States James Harris, who uses mpingo in his craft made contact with Chuwa by mail and proposed a joint effort: He would launch a fundraising effort among woodworkers, musicians and conservationists of the western world and send the money to Sebastian to start tree nurseries in Tanzania.

The project was enthusiastically endorsed by Mr Chuwa. Since that first contact, the ABCP has become a leading force for mpingo conservation in northern Tanzania, founding nurseries for the production of large numbers of mpingo seedlings and raising awareness about the importance of the species internationally. According to Chuwa, African blackwood is considered the most desirable wood for this artform.

Because of its density and oiliness, it can be worked almost like metal, holding very fine detail without chipping or splitting. Further information can be found on his website. Organization, management and implementation of the project in the field in Tanzania is provided by Chuwa, along with his huge group of dedicated volunteers. Chuwa's background and obvious commitment to his beloved mpingo qualifies him eminently to manage the African Blackwood Conservation Project in Tanzania. His motivation is to do something about the environment now, before a crisis state is reached.

He feels that if people replant trees today and harvest mature trees as they are available, they can protect the local ecosystem, insure the vital role of mpingo be maintained and still harvest the wood for local uses and international trade. Chuwa was born in Sungu Village, Kibosho East Ward in Kilimanjaro Region almost 58 years ago.

His early inspiration for botanical pursuits came from his late father, Michael Iwaku Chuwa, an accomplished herbalist, who would take the boy along on forest trips whenever he went to collect medicinal herbs, teaching him names of plants and their medicinal and domestic uses. This instilled in him a deep love and wide knowledge of the natural world and as a child he continually experimented with planting flowers, vegetables and trees in the family gardens and orchards.

On completing his primary and secondary education, Chuwa determined to study conservation because his early exposure to nature had awakened in him a deep commitment to its preservation. In 1972 he was awarded a government scholarship to attend the College of African Wildlife Management Mweka in Moshi, one of the most prestigious wildlife institutes in Africa. He graduated in 1974 with a certificate in Wildlife Management. During his botanical surveys, Chuwa gathered over 10,000 plants in duplicate to send to the University of Dar es Salaam and the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England.

Because of this work, he was awarded a scholarship by his government to study at Kew and received an international diploma from that institution in 1990. His studies at Kew included plant identification, herbarium techniques and the gardening of tropical wild plants. In 1975, Chuwa spent extensive time at Olduvai, continuing until he had compiled an annotated checklist of the area's vascular plants.

Such a 'wise use' philosophy, as the work of Chuwa and his community in Kibosho area demonstrate, is obviously the key element in any approach to conservation of threatened species in today's world. The impact of humanity upon nature is significant and proper planning must be initiated if there is to be any hope for a balanced world ecosystem in this century. What Sebastian asks from the larger world community is minimal support to build a more focused and efficient conservation effort.

His altruism is commendable and he deserves the support of everyone who directly or indirectly benefits from the special tree he is dedicated to preserve. Ornamental turners, knife manufacturers, woodwind instrument makers and collectors of Makonde sculpture are direct beneficiaries of the unique wood called mpingo. But in a broader sense, the whole world benefits from this tree. Two of the highest achievements of human creativity and culture - music and art - are universal and mpingo plays an irreplaceable, though little-recognized role, in their expression.

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