Every March we celebrate the International Day of Forests, another of the many international “days” that seem to appear on our social media feeds almost every day of the year. But do these days stimulate increased interest in or action on their subjects? For me the purpose of these days is to simply highlight a specific issue, and in our case it gives me a reason to celebrate the forests that Carbon Tanzania and their partner communities are working to protect in Tanzania.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but most people would agree that one of the most inspiring, uplifting and naturally powerful images is that of a mature, lustrous green forest stretching off into the distance over a rolling landscape of hills and distant ridges. Such an image doubtless appeals to our primordial brain, recalling a time when our hunter-gatherer ancestors roamed these landscapes in search of roots, fruits and their wild animal prey. The sight and experience of a rich and diverse forest speaks to us at a subliminal level, telling us that there is shelter, food and water available to sustain us.
But for forest communities (and passionate ecologists) no one forest, or even part of a forest, is the same as another. When Hadza hunter-gatherers walk through their traditional forest home, they see an enormous range of food resources that are available to them from the many species of trees and bushes that grow there. While the casual observer will just see a green tangle of shrubs, bushes and trees, the hunter-gatherer will see a variety of different and specific plants similar in diversity to a row of shops on a high street, each one offering a different product useful in daily life.
Carbon Tanzania has partnered with three contrasting communities in its three forest conservation projects across Tanzania and I wanted to use the International Day of Forests as an opportunity to celebrate their differences, and some of their similarities, in an attempt to showcase just how diverse, fascinating and important forests are to people all over the world.
First a few definitions – the term forest has many meanings and can be utilized both scientifically and literally. Many people’s idea of a forest is probably the traditional view of the Amazon rain forest, a thick green expanse, with crowning forest trees emerging from the tangle below, mist rising from the upper storeys after heavy tropical rain storms and the sounds of exotic birds and rare primates echoing across the canopy. But scientifically a forest can be defined as an area of habitat where more than 15% of the ground is covered by trees of over 5 metres in height. This means that a great range of tree covered habitat can be described as forest, ranging from lowland rain forests to dryland savannah woodlands and thickets.
Our projects in both Yaeda and Makame cover dryland forest areas, characterized by open areas of acacias, baobabs and dense thickets, while our Ntakata project in Tanganyika Disotrict in western Tanzania protects areas of moist deciduous forest known here as “miombo”. All these areas harbor important biodiversity – the Yaeda Valley is a dispersal area for large mammals (37 species noted) such as elephants and wild dogs from the nearby world famous Ngorongoro Highlands and Serengeti National Park, while Makame similarly provides both a year round home and a seasonal retreat for similar large mammals from Tarangire National Park (a total of 43 recorded so far), as well as an array of over-wintering birds from Europe and Asia. The miombo woodlands of the Ntakata mountains near to Lake Tanganyika are an important watershed for the Katuma river that supplies year-round water to Katavi National Park, and they also form a corridor between this huge reserve and Mahale Mountains National Park. Moving throughout these woodlands is a significant population of wild Chimpanzees, for whom the protection of these large forested areas will be critical to their survival.
One of the most contrasting aspects of the three forested areas is their human inhabitants, representing as they do the three main idioms of human existence on earth. The Hadza hunter-gatherers of the Yaeda Valley live a semi-nomadic lifestyle that mirrors closely that of our early human ancestors, who themselves were probably roaming the east African savannah for the past 200,000 years. In Makame the pastoralist Masai practice cattle keeping in line with the cultures of the Nile Valley that have venerated cattle for millennia and whose entire economic system is founded on cattle ownership. Here the Masai are protecting the acacia woodlands as seasonal grazing for their cattle herds. In the Ntakata mountains traditional Bantu agriculturalists practice small holder farming in valley bottoms between the rolling mountainous landscape that runs down to Lake Tanganyika and the Congo basin beyond, from whence their ancestors came. All these varied communities rely in different ways on the wise management and protection of their forest resources to ensure that their lifestyles and homes are secure into the future.
For Carbon Tanzania it is a genuine privilege and a golden opportunity to work with these communities to help them protect such areas of importance for both them and the wildlife that has shared the forests throughout the ages here in East Africa – a good reason to celebrate the International Day of Forests!