Interest in Nature-based Climate Solutions

During the COVID pandemic, Carbon Tanzania has continued to operate its existing projects thanks to our decentralised model of forest conservation. We have also experienced enhanced interest in our current projects, as well as in the potential for developing ever more schemes that fit into what is now popularly known as Nature-based Solutions to climate change. In this blog CT Director Jo Anderson gives some context for this growing interest, and talks about how Carbon Tanzania goes about assessing where a new project might be developed, using a recent field trip as an example to illustrate the process.

The Year of Living Differently

2020 is already certain to be remembered by most people as exceptional, unprecedented, never-to-be-forgotten. The Corona virus pandemic has disrupted lives, profoundly affected economies, interrupted children’s education, limited travel and leisure, and has stress-tested health systems and medical capacities – the world continues to grapple with its spread while seeking better treatments and effective vaccines which will allow societies to rebuild.

The restrictions imposed both formally by governments and individually by people protecting themselves and their families have resulted in good news stories and positive changes as well – families spending more time together, a wider appreciation of nature and the outdoors, less air pollution, quieter skies, healthier eating habits, more locally sourced food, less conspicuous consumption, more acts of kindness, and a general increase in spending by governments on social needs.

No one likes change

The swift and often dramatic changes enforced by governments and adopted by societies, and the accompanying mobilisation of financial resources by rich-world economies almost completely mirrors the actions that will be needed for us all to tackle the far bigger and significantly more pernicious crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. We are reminded by scientists and health experts that dealing with the latter is fundamental to preventing future similar disease outbreaks, with 75% of all new emerging diseases being zoonotic, meaning that they jump from wild or domestic animals to humans, usually as a result of human populations expanding their activities into formerly natural habitats. And when we hear that $44 trillion of economic value generation is dependent on nature and ecosystem services, the need to prioritise a more sustainable relationship with the natural world makes its own case, even to the hard-headed world of finance and economics.

It is this realisation by people outside of the conservation world and environmental movement that is driving the continued and increasing interest in seeking solutions to climate change.

While the moral case for climate action may be open and shut for social activists and passionate wildlife and nature-lovers, the economic case has now become irresistible and hard to ignore by anyone who understands risk and how to manage it. In the case of climate action, the costs of inaction are now so well characterised and understood that it is clearly an unbearable risk not to orient both company strategy and government policy to investing in systems, businesses, social plans and infrastructure projects that are designed to deliver a zero-carbon global economy as quickly as possible, and by 2050 at the latest. Investing in nature is just one way to mitigate some of this risk – protecting natural ecosystems such as forests, coral reefs and wetlands will allow us to reduce current emissions by up to 30%. 

This is why Carbon Tanzania has continued to receive interest in our projects throughout 2020 – and not just in our current projects, but in our plans for new and future project developments. The commitments of many influential and visionary global corporates to decarbonising their operations, their supply chains and their entire businesses mean that to reach their goals some of their unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions will have to be offset with projects that are reducing emissions at a global scale.

You cannot protect too much forest

As followers of Carbon Tanzania will know, our forest conservation projects not only generate high-quality carbon credits (also known as Verified Emissions Reductions) that can be used by companies and individuals as offsets to compensate for their lifestyle or business emissions, but they also ensure measurable and significant economic benefits for forest communities and important biodiversity conservation outcomes for rare and important wildlife species and populations.  Our Yaeda Valley, Makame Savannah and Ntakata Mountains REDD projects supply these credits at the moment. However to meet the demand for Nature-based Solutions we are now being asked to identify new and ever larger areas of forest that can be managed for their carbon storage potential, both in Tanzania and across East and Southern Africa.

Map of Rungwa Ruaha Katavi

In service to this, in July I spent 10 days with my co-Director and founder of Carbon Tanzania Marc Baker conducting a field visit to assess the feasibility of developing a forest carbon project in the west of Tanzania, in the vast woodlands of the Ruaha – Rungwa – Katavi ecosystem.

Modern technology allows us to do a great deal of research online about forest landscapes, deforestation patterns, community governance systems and cultural context, but there is no substitute for physically seeing a landscape, meeting local people face to face and talking to them about their daily lives, plans and challenges.

Frontier deforestation

This particular landscape has long been considered a remote wilderness of endless miombo woodlands and inaccessible swamp systems, made up of a mosaic of National Parks, Game Reserves and Forest Reserves, and regulated variously for both photographic and trophy hunting tourism via a network of these reserves, game-controlled areas and open areas. But the past 25 years has seen increasing illegal incursions by land-hungry agro-pastoralists, especially in forest areas found on village land, making many areas deforestation frontiers. Local communities are losing out due to their inability to implement land-use plans over such large areas, and while adjacent government game and forest reserves enjoy largely effective protection due to their legal status, village forests are an easy target for shifting agriculturalists.

Lack of Opportunity

Man with bags on charcoal on bike

These farmers clear land for crops, often burning the felled high-value timber and manufacturing some charcoal as a by-product, while using the extensive remaining woodlands to graze their cattle. The challenge for communities is to allocate farming areas for new arrivals to their villages, while also protecting their natural resources, primarily their forests. While these forests do provide some benefits to the communities in the form of wild harvests of medicines, honey and wood products for building and cooking, the task of protecting them represents a significant cost which is not always covered by these non-fiscal benefits. So when we assess a forest area for its potential carbon asset value, one of the key considerations is whether the revenues that can be generated from the sales of carbon credits from the forest conservation activities will be enough to meet the opportunity costs associated with effectively protecting the forest on their lands. 

The reality of the situation on the ground is revealed even in the names of some of the villages we visited; while some are simply tongue-twisters like Bitimanyanga, Kambikatoto and Mwamagembe, others have very clear meanings: Mafyeko can be translated simply as “land clearance”, while the sub-village of “Majembe” celebrates the rural farmer’s essential tool, the humble hoe! As with other areas where we have developed forest conservation initiatives, the trick is to ensure that a land use plan exists which provides for the needs of all the inhabitants of the village, be they farmers, pastoralists or traditional honey-hunters. In this landscape one of our partners, The Wildlife Conservation Society, has supported these villages to create consensual and practical land-use plans, providing a good basis for developing a carbon project.

Seeing the wood from the trees 

Naturally one of the critical ingredients of a carbon forest project is the forest itself! Maps and satellite images give us a largely accurate picture of where forest areas exist, but our trip in July gave us an opportunity to see the miombo woodlands up close. We planned to visit areas of forest both on village lands as well as some of the adjacent government reserved areas, but our efforts were frustrated by this year’s very wet conditions which persisted unusually into July, normally known as the “dry” season. We forded rivers, running deep where often a trickle would have been encountered, in our 4x4s, got stuck in innocuous patches of dry miombo forest, and had to abandon bush tracks when they entered open areas which in most years would have been dry grasslands but were this year muddy, inundated swamps.

But we did get a very good idea of the extent of these majestic deciduous woodlands, and despite deforestation proceeding across some parts of the landscape, large areas of well conserved habitat remain on both village lands as well as in the reserves. 

Miombo Woodland Tanzania
Extensive Miombo woodland in Tanzania

Miombo woodlands are an ecotype which by any measure are under-represented in popular knowledge of Africa and misunderstood by many traditional academics and wildlife researchers, mostly due to a lack of information about and experience in this complex and often vast habitat.

Most people’s impression of wild African habitats is limited to either the thick, dark and menacing “jungles” of the congo lowland rainforest basin, or the wide open, photogenic Acacia savannahs of East and southern Africa where charismatic mammals roam around, crossing raging rivers, striding in herds beneath Mount Kilimanjaro or running down gazelles with speed and elegance.

The miombo woodlands are different – hot and dry for much of the year, inundated, cool and inaccessible for the rest, their trees are mostly deciduous like our familiar European and North American species, growing new leaves in a burst of green at the beginning of the rainy season, then turning golden yellow, brown and burned orange throughout the dry season in a riot of colour to match any northern Autumn. The woodlands are neither completely open like Acacia savannahs, nor closed canopies such as those of a true rainforest, but an open, regular spacing of the individual trees allows for grasses to grow beneath the canopy, while the monotony is broken variously by wide open swamps, drainage areas and, occasionally, seasonal lakes.

Makame Wild dog - Carbon Tanzania

The usual suspects are found in these woodlands, in terms of the celebrated African mammals: elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, giraffe and zebra, and these are augmented by enigmatic and magnificent large antelopes such as the Roan, Sable and Greater Kudu. Wild Dogs roam freely across huge expanses, and in the West of the ecosystem, where our Ntakata project is located, Chimpanzees have adapted to the less productive dry woodlands and their river valleys, but are nonetheless established successfully in the miombo. Add to this list many endemic birds and reptiles found only in this less well-known African “forest”, and similarly endemic small mammals like genets and mongooses, and a picture builds of real wildlife treasures. These are woodlands that merit more attention and deserve to be afforded protection where possible.

Making forests pay

So our trip allowed us to tick most of the boxes that form the basis of developing a community based forest project, using the REDD framework for monitoring and reporting, in a way that will balance the economic needs of the rural communities against the need to enforce land use plans that will ensure the long term sustainability of the natural resources. 

1. large areas of natural and high conservation value forest – tick 

2. unplanned and unsustainable deforestation in the target areas – tick 

3. communities with legal commitments to protecting forest areas within a consensually agreed land-use management system – tick 

4. a strong partner with a shared vision in the landscape, who can support the communities in delivering their legal obligations – tick 

5. commercial interest from international institutions and companies who will be the ones providing long-term finance in the form of carbon credit purchases from the participating areas – tick.

So we now move to the project design phase – watch this space!

Written by Jo Anderson – Carbon Tanzania Director

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