African Blackwood Conservation Project

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The People Behind the Project


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Founding of the ABCP

The African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP) was founded by James Harris, a woodturning artist from the USA, and Sebastian Chuwa (now deceased), a botanist and safari guide from the Kilimanjaro Region of Tanzania. They were brought together by a television program produced by the BBC in 1992 entitled “Mpingo–The Tree that Makes Music.” This documentary was the first to focus on Dalbergia melanoxylon, calling to the attention of the world community the significant threats to its future survival, due to overexploitation and lack of sufficient conservation measures to insure its conservation. The film highlighted Sebastian’s efforts to call public attention to the plight of the species in northern Tanzania, where it is commercially extinct, and documents his first nursery efforts to raise seedlings and replant the species in areas where it had once thrived.

After seeing the program in the US, James contacted Sebastian by postal mail and suggested they coordinate a targeted program for the species based on replanting in its native range and education to raise public awareness about its precarious conservation status. In 1996, the ABCP began operations by establishing a nursery called the Moshi Mpingo Plot in Mijongweni, south of Moshi, where Sebastian lived in rural Moshi near Sungu village. Since its founding the nursery has successfully produced not only hundreds of thousands of mpingo seedlings, but other indigenous tree species as well, some that are important commercially and others that are used domestically. They have been replanted in locations that are protected from predators, like acreages surrounding schools, churches, private farms and public institutions.

Sebastian had a long and distinguished career as an African conservationist, graduating from Mweka College in 1974, then working at Ngorongoro Conservation Area for 18 years. In that position he cataloged the plants of the national park, assisted Mary Leakey in documenting the plant life of nearby Oldupai Gorge, spearheaded a program to protect the black rhinoceros and worked with communities surrounding Ngorongoro to set up conservation programs and tree planting projects. In 1992 he returned to his ancestral home on Mt. Kilimanjaro and began working as a safari guide for the US-based company Wildlife Explorer. In order to address the adverse impact of deforestation and pollution on the Kilimanjaro watershed, he and his wife, Elizabeth, began to work through local community groups and helped to spearhead a movement that combined youth education, tree planting for ecosystem renewal and economic empowerment. Their four children, Margareth, Michael, Flora and Cyril were raised within an atmosphere of respect for the environment and knowledge of the ways in which it could be maintained sustainably, with a healthy balance between human use and natural regeneration.

In 2014, after almost 20 years leadership of the ABCP, Sebastian Chuwa died of a stroke and heart complications. Fortunately for the continuance of his work, the Chuwa family decided to continue in his footsteps and carry on the work of the ABCP and other environmental initiatives that he had inspired. Consequently Sebastian’s wife, Elizabeth Chuwa and her brother, Dismas Macha, stepped in to become the ABCP Tanzanian Co-directors. Sebastian and Elizabeth’s two sons, Michael and Cyril, have also remained committed to the work, and are involved in overseeing seedling production at the Moshi Mpingo Plot and participating in new initiatives to find planting locations for the seedlings. In this section will be presented background information about each of them.

(See details of Sebastian’s life and his many contributions to African conservation here.).

James Harris has a BS degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas. After college he worked for the Texas Highway department designing bridges. For over 40 years he was a wood artist, practicing a very technical type of lathework called Ornamental Turning, and some of the equipment that he utilized for this craft he designed and built himself. His artistic work consists of intricately ornamented perfume bottles, boxes and vessels. Because of its density and oiliness, African blackwood is considered the most desirable wood for this artform, allowing it to be worked almost like metal, holding very fine detail without chipping or splitting. Further information can be found on his website.

Bette Stockbauer has a BA degree in African Anthropology/Sociology from the University of Houston and spent several years teaching children with special needs. She has also worked as a self-employed artist, making boxes from a variety of hardwoods, specializing in using species native to Texas. She and James live on 15 acres of land in Central Texas, where they have built their own workshop and home. 

The time required for organizational responsibilities, publicity, fundraising, and accounting for the ABCP in the US is donated by James, the creator of this web site, and Bette, who specializes in grant writing and public outreach. Organization, management, and implementation of the project in the field in Tanzania is provided by the Tanzanian ABCP project staff, Dismas Macha and Elizabeth, Michael and Cyril Chuwa. In 2000, the ABCP acquired non-profit status as a US IRS 501(c)3 charitable organization. Work of the US partners is voluntary and all money donated to the ABCP goes to support the work in Africa. Additionally the US team regularly funds special project needs from personal funds.

Dismas Macha

Dismas Macha has a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Resource Management from Egerton University in Kenya. Since 1990 he has worked with the natural resources department of Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) to oversee management of Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), one of Tanzania’s most important protected areas and tourist destinations. The NCA is a designated World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, and is sometimes called one of the wonders of the world because of its unique topological features and abundant wildlife.

Covering an area of over 3,000 square miles, it comprises part of the East African Rift system, a geological feature caused by the activity of two tectonic plates being pushed apart by volcanic activity. Along the rift line are dramatic landscapes and numerous extinct volcanoes like Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya and Mt. Meru. North of the NCA is Ol Doinyo Lengai, a still active volcano which emits a type of volcanic eruption that is unique in the world, producing lava that is rich in carbonates rather than the silicates comprising other igneous deposits.

The NCA’s most striking feature is Ngorongoro Crater, an extinct volcanic caldera 10-12 miles across, which harbors a resident population (some endangered) of 25,000 large animal species including Cape buffalo, hippopotamus, black rhinoceros, cheetah, leopard and one of the largest lion populations in the world. To the east of the crater area is the Serengeti, a vast area of grassy planes, wherein the largest animal migration in the world still completes its yearly cycle. Over 1 million wildebeest, 72,000 zebras and 350,000 Thompson and Grant’s gazelles seasonally pass in a vast circle between the Serengeti and the fertile grasslands of the eastern NCA.

Botanists employed at Ngorongoro have long been leaders in the conservation of African native species. Dismas works as an assistant Forest Officer in the Highlands area to the north, where two additional craters dominate the landscape, Olmati and Empakaai. In this region, which comprises 60% of the park land, he collects and catalogs NCA plant species for its central herbarium. In his surveys of the Highland’s vegetative species, he monitors the appearance of invasive plants, human and animal impacts and vegetation decline, and institutes programs to restore any degraded ecosystems. To protect against poaching and population decline, he monitors wild animals of the area, and arranges for their feeding during times of drought. To reduce the risk of wild fires within the park he travels its perimeter, initiating weed abatement measures where needed.

Dismas also works with communities surrounding the park boundaries. Tanzania has one of Africa’s largest numbers of national parks and nature reserves. Although this has led to a profitable and environmentally-friendly tourist industry, it has also led to some land use conflicts with surrounding villages, whose populations often heavily rely on forest products for their livelihood needs. Since 90% of fuel use in Tanzania is from wood products, forest reserves are often at risk for illegal extraction of the forest resources within their boundaries. To offset the problem, the management teams of park systems and reserves are instituting programs to work with surrounding communities to enhance their economic and environmental resources so that domestic needs within the villages will be met and the use of park resources will be minimized.

Dismas has many years of experience in instituting such programs in order to accomplish these ends. He teaches the villagers and school children in surrounding towns about environmental conservation and helps establish tree nurseries and tree planting projects. The NCA operates a central nursery at Karatu that produces 50,000 seedlings a year. By distributing these seedlings Dismas is helping villages to plant species that preserve local environments and supply domestic needs for fuelwood, medicines, food and shade. This boosts local economies and reduces impingement on Ngorongoro protected areas.

Other programs he implements include the promotion of fuel-saving technologies to reduce the use of charcoal and wood fuel, the donation of dairy cattle to families, and the funding of certain infrastructure needs, like building schools and establishing water projects. In addition to this full slate of work for the NCA, Dismas has assumed the role as Co-director of the ABCP. In this position Dismas manages activities at the Moshi Mpingo Plot and arranges for outreach programs to find suitable locations for the tree seedlings. He has overseen a nursery renovation to repair and strengthen the nursery shelter, and handles finances within Tanzania. His botanical knowledge and direct experience in community conservation projects bring a wealth of expertise and commitment to the ABCP. Dismas' wife Beatrice is a school teacher in Arusha and they have a son, Pascal, and a daughter, Carolyn.

Elizabeth Chuwa

Elizabeth Chuwa has been involved in teaching conservation principles and organizing a wide range of environmental initiatives for over 25 years. She is presently the principle of Sungu Primary School located in Moshi Rural District on the southern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Elizabeth received her degree from Kleruu Teacher’s College in Iringa, and began teaching in 1984 at Ngorongoro Primary School when Sebastian was working as a conservator at Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Elizabeth also worked alongside Sebastian in studying the extensive flora and fauna of the park area and assisted in the collection and preservation of plant species for later identification and cataloging. Both were also active in establishing outreach programs for the resident Maasai of the area. In 1992, when the family moved back to Mt. Kilimanjaro, they were determined to introduce environmental education and activities into the schools of the area. They considered this of critical importance because the mountain’s environment suffered from extensive deforestation due to human habitation, tree removal and wild fires.

Over a million people live on the lower elevations of Kilimanjaro and many support themselves by growing coffee, which is climatically suited to the area. Decades before Tangyanika’s independence in 1961, a substantial coffee industry had been developed in the region, and Africa’s first indigenous cooperative was established in 1929 – the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (KNCU). The people of Kilimanjaro are also known for their home gardens and the many species of bananas they grow. Therefore the ecological health of the Kilimanjaro watershed is of critical importance, not only for the livelihood needs of the people on the mountain, but for downstream users who depend on the river flow originating on its slopes for water and electrical power. To protect this important area Elizabeth and Sebastian were determined to educate their neighbors about the conservation measures needed to ensure a continuing natural balance of Kilimanjaro’s ecosystems.

Elizabeth assumed a teaching position at Sungu Primary School and became affiliated with teacher’s groups throughout the area. Because of this she was able to influence the introduction of environmental studies into district-wide school curricula, and arranged for teacher training sessions to familiarize staff and faculty with the subject matter to be taught. Working through two national organizations, Malihai Clubs of Tanzania and Roots and Shoots, founded by Jane Goodall, the teachers instituted youth clubs in dozens of schools throughout the area. Members of these clubs learned to respect the flora and fauna of the earth and studied the ways in which natural resources can be protected. Many schools established tree nurseries and held regular planting days to reforest degraded river slopes and burned out areas. An environmental choir was formed and World Environment Day activities were instituted, the first in Kilimanjaro Region.

By means of such efforts, Tanzanian school children and adults are becoming more aware of the principles of conservation and are actively participating in grassroots efforts to heal the environment. Sebastian and Elizabeth placed a special emphasis on the ecological and economic importance of African blackwood, and have been important voices in raising awareness about the species and leading active outreach efforts to encourage schools, churches and public institutions to join in educational and replanting projects for its future survival.

Elizabeth has also assisted in the formation of a number of women’s groups in the Moshi area. With the passage of the Tanzanian Land Acts in 1999, the rights of women in the nation were liberalized and for the first time they were legally allowed to own land and (by extension) trees. This led to a nation-wide burgeoning of women’s groups, eager to organize to promote economic and social programs for the benefit of their families and communities. Many such groups started tree nurseries and were instrumental in advancing environmental awareness and establishing community reforestation efforts. (link to this info?)

Elizabeth has always been instrumental in the work of the ABCP, assisting in its activities through many years of dedicated effort. Since the passing of Sebastian she has continued her commitment. In 2014 she was the guest of honor at a Roots and Shoots annual event celebrating the UN International Day of Peace, and addressed the gathering about the importance of activity-based programs in protecting the environment as a way to enhance positive community cooperation. In 2017 she was presented with a certificate by Jane Goodall to honor her many years of commitment to youth conservation.

Michael and Cyril Chuwa

Michael Chuwa - Michael and Cyril Chuwa are Sebastian and Elizabeth’s sons, both of whom since childhood have been involved in the various conservation activities sponsored by their parents and are now assisting in carrying on the project work of the ABCP. Michael is the oldest son and is attending college in Iringa. He has been interested in computer technology since completing secondary school in Moshi in 2009. After attending the Institute of Accountancy in Arusha for two years, he received a certificate as a Basic Technician in Computer Science. To further his studies he enrolled at the University of Iringa in south-central Tanzania. He has now completed four years of study equivalent to college level work in the US, and will be completing his fifth and final year in 2018, when he will graduate with a B.S. degree in Information Technology.

His area of specialization is programming and multimedia subjects and he is primarily interested in the construction of Internet websites. One of his fields of focus is Dynamic Web Development, the designing of sophisticated and interactive web content. Michael has been an important partner in carrying on the work of the ABCP, attending local environmental celebrations and instructing other participants about the importance of tree planting for environmental renewal.

Cyril Chuwa - As a young boy Cyril learned about plants and wildlife and traveled with his father in his work to establish outreach programs for the ABCP in areas suitable for growing mpingo. Together they would visit institutions and individuals interested in participating in replanting efforts. As a result of this early influence, Cyril is now intent on carrying forward work begun by his late father.

To this end in 2016 Cyril Chuwa began studies at the College of African Wildlife Management at Mweka, north of Moshi, the institution from which Sebastian had graduated in 1974. When he completes his studies he will have fulfilled requirements for a certification in Wildlife Management. Coursework at Mweka includes the identification and classification of plants and animals, vertebrate and invertebrate biology and the methodology of conducting biodiversity surveys. Other studies include administrative skills necessary for wildlife resource management in national parks, wildlife utilization, captive breeding, herbarium collection and species restoration.

Mweka College was founded in 1963, two years after the nation’s independence, as a pioneer institution for the training of wildlife managers. Since then it has been a leader in the industry throughout Africa and regularly sponsors conferences and seminars on wildlife conservation for an international community of conservationists. Students trained at Mweka find careers working in the many parks and reserves that are operated by the government. Tanzania is well known for its impressive public reserves and parks, particularly along its Northern Circuit corridor which borders Kenya to the north. Mt. Kilimanjaro, Arusha National Park, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro, Serengeti and Tarangire parks are all important protected areas and travel destinations for hundreds of thousands of international visitors every year.

During the past few years Michael and Cyril have worked with Dismas and Elizabeth in distributing a variety of tree seedlings from the ABCP mpingo nursery to schools and churches in different area of northern Tanzania, where they instruct students and teachers in the planting and long term care of the species. Together they have worked at renovations needed at the mpingo nursery and continue to oversee the ongoing work of producing seedlings. In the fall of 2016, Cyril traveled to Dar es Salaam to be interviewed and explain the conservation status of mpingo for a documentary being filmed for a French-Canadian TV series for their episode on the mpingo carvers market in Dar. During the interview he explained the objectives and conservation work of the ABCP.

Three generations of the Chuwa family have been active in teaching the principles of conservation to Kilimanjaro communities. Michael Iwaku Chuwa, Sebastian’s father, was an accomplished herbalist who taught his neighbors the science of deriving medicinal remedies from plant species on Kilimanjaro. Sebastian followed his path by instituting numerous programs designed to work in tandem to conserve nature and enhance human welfare. Elizabeth and Sebastian’s children are now learning the methodologies that are bringing conservation into the modern era and continuing in the important work of their ancestors.

 

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ABCP Website maintained by James E. Harris, 2000.
Last revised 27 April 2017.