CHUWA: The Man Behind Mpingo Project

Terry Harnwell, a renowned international webmaster and founder of, recently visited Africa and met Sebastian Chuwa,
a Tanzanian botanist who impressed her by the activities he was spearheading
under the banner of the African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP).

The Guardian, a Dar es Salaam newspaper
May 29, 2001
by Charles Nzo Mmbaga

After visiting his various tree-planting projects, in Moshi, Kilimanjaro, which included a tour of ABCP’s Moshi Mpingo nurseries, thrilled Terry volunteered to put together a free website ( for the Kilimanjaro Environmental Conservation Management Trust Fund, another initiative headed by Sebastian as its Chairman.

Clearly impressed with his conservation work in Tanzania, Terry says "We think Sebastian has achieved some almost miraculous things". The Webmaster traveled quite a bit in Tanzania in the last year and everyone she and her colleague met and who "knew of Sebastian, only had the highest praise for this remarkable man. We wholeheartedly support all his efforts in every way we can," she says.

The establishment of the website is yet another encouragement and a well-deserved morale booster to Sebastian’s efforts. Last year he become the first Tanzania to win an international award for his tireless campaign to save and re-plant African blackwood, Mpingo, which is facing commercial extinct in East Africa.

He was a recipient of a grant from the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation.

The main purpose of the grant was to subsidize the purchase of video equipment to allow Sebastian to make environmental videos and set up public presentations in the schools and communities of his area.

Say James Harris and Bette Stockbauer, US Co-Coordinators of the African Blackwood Conservation Project: "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". BP Tanzania is one of his sponsors.

And UN environmental agencies have also recognized his efforts. He was recently invited to attend a planning session for a UNEP environmental initiative in Mombasa, Kenya.

Sebastian’s invitation and subsequent participation in the Mombasa seminar was timely. UNEP’s sub-division, the "Environmental Education and Training Unit" is currently building programs in 5 countries in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Seychelles and Rwanda) and a UNEP official said he invited Sebastian because of his "innovative initiative and immense energy."

Since many of the conservation methods and goals discussed in Mombasa were similar to those of Malihai Clubs of Tanzania, Sebastian was able to offer input from his own experiences and show part of a video that ABCP had put together about his work. (During the past year Sebastian has worked with 43 Malihai Clubs and Four Mpingo Clubs in schools near Kilimanjaro, helping them with their nursery and educational programs).

Other participants requested copies of the video to show in their local regions.

Sebastian is currently working with 5 other representatives from Tanzania to draw up an action plan for the whole country and apply for funding from UNEP for implementation. He will serve as co-ordinator of the Northern Region.

After returning from the conference Sebastian called a meeting of all the school leaders in the Kibosho network to ask their co-operation in introducing the Eco-school program. During the Environmental Day celebration in early June he will also introduce the idea to those taking part in the activities.

Winner of the 2000 Lindbergh Grant for his research project entitled, "Balancing Ecological Diversity with Art and Music - a Community-Based Program to Replant African Blackwood" Sebastian has been organising grass-roots conservation efforts with local gardeners by getting them to volunteer space to grow and tend mpingo seedlings.

He has also formed conservation clubs in local schools to heighten awareness about the environment.

Sebastian's campaign has a long-term impact in East Africa.

Mpingo is the most highly valued traded timber in the world and is of cultural, ecological and economic significance where it grows. This is particularly true for Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, where the species is important at local, national and international scales.

This valuable Blackwood tree, botanically referred to as Dalbergia melanoxylon, is widely used in the wood carving industry and in musical instrument manufacture and it also provides a valuable source of income for Tanzania.

But something serious is going to happen to this tree ... "It is widely harvested and now faces commercial extinction in East Africa", says Sebastian and this is exactly why he has thrown all his efforts in the re-planting campaigns.

An estimated 20,000 African Blackwood (Mpingo) trees are harvested for commercial purposes each year.

Once found in 20 African nations, harvestable stands of Mpingo are now only found in Tanzania and Mozambique. The trees have a 70-200 year growth cycle to reach a commercially usable size, and it is estimated that only a 20-year supply of trees remain available for harvest in Africa.

James Harris, an ornamental turner in Texas, USA, founded the African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP) in co-operation with Sebastian, with the American committing himself to managing the ABCP and seeking international support and publicity for the while the Tanzanian botanist managing the actual project in Tanzania.

Born in Kibosho, Kilimanjaro region has a certificate in Wildlife Management from the College of African Wildlife Management Mweka and an International Diploma in Botany from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, England.

He has worked with the Ngorongoro Conservation as assistant conservator and also worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania as well as serving as a botanist and guide for Wildlife Explorer Tanzania.

He is currently working as botanist-in-charge of special projects, biodiversity surveys and mpingo conservation efforts.

Sebastian first came to the attention of the world when he was featured in the 1992 BBC-produced documentary about the African Blackwood tree called The Tree of Music which was aired in the United States on the Public Broadcasting System television series, Nature.

His work in documenting the status and implementing conservation efforts regarding the mpingo, or Blackwood tree, was covered in the film.

In October of 2000 Sebastian was elected un-opposed to political office as Councilor of his district of Kibosho East, and he has been using that position to sensitize his people on environmental matters.

He says, "Since I was elected to this post I have attended several council meetings in Moshi. This is a very good post because it gives an official forum to spread the conservation message to local and central government.

He has been able organize village meetings talking about development, and at the same time educating the villagers about the environment with tree planting campaigns as the main theme.

He says two positions work together because when I am going outside of my own district of Kibosho East I can use my leadership as chairman of the Trust Fund (which covers the whole region of Kilimanjaro) to ask other district councilors to help me arrange meetings with people and schools in their areas."

Sebastian feels that if we replant trees today and harvest mature trees as they are available, we can protect the local ecosystem, insure the vital role that mpingo plays in it be maintained, and still harvest mpingo as a source of wood for local and international trade.

James Harris says: "Such a 'wise use' philosophy 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 the next century".

Indeed, Sebastian deserves the support of all who are directly or indirectly benefiting from the unique wood called mpingo. As one of the highest achievements of human creativity and culture, music is a universal language, and mpingo plays an irreplaceable though little recognized role in its expression for all citizens of the planet.




ABCP Website maintained by James E. Harris, 2000.
Last revised 21 April 2008.