Pinus patula – both a solution and a problem in Tanzania

October 28, 2019

Planted Pinus patula in Makete district, Tanzania.

By Steven Teraka Mwihomeke

Makete is one of six districts in Njombe region of Tanzania. Most of the district is located at high altitude – between 2 000 and 3 000 meters. The region includes the beautiful Livingstone and Kipengere mountain ranges which in the past were often covered in snow during the cold winter months.

Temperatures can sometimes go down to 0°C with a common range of up to 20°C. It has unique rivers like the Luvanyina with perennial flow and was once dominated by the rare Salix tree species.

Agriculture dominated by smallholder farms of wheat, maize, fruit trees (mainly apples, plums and peaches) is the cornerstone of the economy and people’s livelihood strategy in Makete District. In the past pyrethrum was widely planted as a cash crop in Makete, but unfortunately many farmers stopped pyrethrum farming.

Farmers in Makete are recognised as the most hard working people in Tanzania but unfortunately there are still high levels of poverty prevailing.

After stopping cultivation of pyrethrum, farmers in Makete did not have any other cash crop. But since 1979 there has been an increasing demand for construction timber, and many people started planting P. patula for cash income generation. Currently P. patula is wide spread all over Makete district. People understand the importance of trees and have become experts based on their own experience, and they do not need awareness programmes from Government or NGOs to advise them, especially when it comes to planting P. patula.

Due to the lack of alternative sources of cash income farmers are now desperately planting P. patula, and there may already be over 200,000 ha planted in Makete district. The timber would be sufficient to start several wood factories, but up to now there are none. Timber is still very cheap and most of it is unsold and left to rot. This timber resource represents a major business opportunity.

Uncontrolled P. patula is now spreading fiercely and displacing indigenous plant species in places with natural grasses and shrubs. Kitulo Plateau and grassland areas in Makete are renowned as centers of endemism for many plant species such as the edible orchids which could play a major role in food security.

Natural vegetation
There is massive disappearance of natural vegetation cover, loss of native flora and fauna biodiversity for food, medicinal and many other human and wildlife uses. All this is happening due to uncontrolled planting of P. patula, lack of concern and no thought of a strategy to stop invasion and no idea of how to reduce the high rate of clearing more land for planting even more pine.

Makete is situated deep in rural areas and in the past it was difficulty to access many areas of the district, especially during the rainy season. The government is currently constructing a tar road which many people believe is going to solve many of the socio-economic and environmental problems.

The improved road, together with other development projects, has the potential to bring high quality extension services to farmers and other land users to promote sustainable agriculture, including planting trees for cash income generation, fuel wood and charcoal production.

But the current focus of environmentalists on clearing invasive P. patula and imposing strict rules and regulations on farmers and other land users is the wrong approach. It only advances their own interests.

In my experience such strategies will never work without getting the local people on board.

The writer, Steven Mwihomeke, is concerned about the uncontrolled invasion of pines onto natural grasslands in Tanzania.

To be successful, it is essential that any strategy aimed at conserving natural resources and preventing further environmental degradation must get buy-in from the people on the ground, and strike a balance between conservation and addressing people’s basic needs. Such strategies and recommendations should not be academic exercises, but should rather be more practical and relevant.

Above all an appropriate strategy to address the escalating invasion of P. patula in Makete should be based on interventions that provide tangible benefits to farmers and other land users.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, September 2019

Related article: Saving the wild pepper-bark trees

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