Tanzanian farmers cut overreliance on forests with multipurpose palm tree

A unique palm tree located in one of Tanzania’s endangered forests is providing people living in the forests with alternative source of income and assisting them spare felling of trees which have been important in maintaining rainfall in the area. Weaving lengths of fibrous palm leaves, the women of Tanzania's Nou forest are busier than ever. Situated in the Manyara region of the country's temperate north-east, over 200,000 people depend on the forest which, for generations, has provided them with food, water and a valued raw material called raffia.

Raffia is part of daily life in the forest, where an abundant water supply and fertile soils provide favourable growing conditions. The versatile palm has multiple uses. The raffia culms, stems, are commonly used as supporting beams in buildings and the leaves make effective roof covering. There is also a long-standing tradition of raffia use in textiles - baskets, mats, hats and rope can be woven from the flexible fronds. These goods were produced primarily for use within the villages but are now sold locally and abroad, generating much-needed income.

Previously the situation was very different when a combination of rapid population growth and the need for productive agricultural land devastated large areas of the forest. In particular, unrestrained grazing, illegal logging and uncontrolled forest fires contributed to soil erosion, silting of the rivers and destruction of the area's biodiversity. Over-harvesting and unsustainable methods of collecting raffia also contributed to the destruction of parts of the state-owned forest, threatening the village's water supplies and depleting most of the raffia. Faced with a potential environmental catastrophe, the Tanzanian government banned the collection of raffia from the forest.

With the help of two NGOs, the ban has been revoked and forest communities are now weaving their way to a brighter future. FARM-Africa Tanzania and SOS Sahel Ethiopia established the Nou Joint Forest Management (JFM) project, a participatory forest management (PFM) scheme, bringing villagers and the government together to manage the forest sustainably.

As a result raffia production has been domesticated, with large quantities now grown in homesteads on the forest perimeter. Areas of the forest have been replanted and the crop is also grown in swampy areas to avoid clearing more land. Furthermore, villagers no longer uproot the raffia during harvesting but leave the roots intact to allow plants to regenerate.

While the men of the villages harvest and collect the raffia, the women weave. In 2005, also as part of the Nou JFM project, raffia weavers' groups were established to help villagers improve the quality of their products and identify new market opportunities. As a result, demand has been increasing in local and foreign markets.

Although many women from the Nou forest have been weaving with raffia since childhood, the weavers' groups have helped change their fortunes. Typical is Paulina Hotay, a 34-year-old mother-of-five from Murray Village, whose income has increased sevenfold, enabling her to buy clothes for her children and pay for their school fees. "Before joining this project I made less than 2,000 Tanzanian shillings," she said. "Now I make 15,000 TZS per month through raffia."

By working together with communities and the government, the Nou JFM project has also helped to clarify villagers' land rights, and further NTFP projects are now being investigated, including ecotourism and beekeeping. Farmers are conducting trials to see whether different crops can be grown in the forest, helping the communities to increase and diversify their income sources while reducing their dependency on the forest. Once well-established, FARM-Africa and SOS Sahel Ethiopia will hand over the management of the project to the communities and government.

The two NGOs also run PFM programmes in the Chilimo, Borana, Bonga and Bale Mountain Forests of Ethiopia and there is growing interest in Kenya. However, difficulties to be overcome when setting up PFM programmes, include issues of trust between parties, and the assessment of a forest's resources. Most important is the need for a long-term commitment to the projects, which, as in the Nou forest, can take several years to come to fruition.