Around the World in 80 People
(A Profile of Sebastian Chuwa)


 

Sebastian Chuwa - Moshi (Tanzania) - 31July 2004
Because of one African a Garden of Ebony lives again

by Sylvain Darnil and Mathieu Le Roux, from their book, Tour du Monde en 80 Hommes
Special thanks for the English translation to old friend and ABCP supporter, Michael Hall

It was on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, the (less and less) snow-covered roof of Africa, that we met Sebastian Chuwa, the man whose life beats to the rhythm of "the tree of music". This merry Tanzanian, around fifty of years old, is the founder of a conservation project for Mpingo - Tanzanian Ebony - which suffers from overexploitation the effects of which could lead quickly to the extinction of this source of national pride.

Sebastian Chuwa was born with his nose in plants, a botanist from birth. His father, an herbalist and traditional doctor, obliged his son to plant in his garden all of the kinds of plants which he might need [in his practice]. This exercise, not always easy, was the best way for young Sebastian to acquire his green hand. Growing up in the area where he still lives with his family, at more than 4900 meters of altitude, he learned in Kenya the techniques of conservation and studied botany in Dar Es Salaam, and then in London. He began his engagement with the environment while working in the sumptuous national parks of Serengeti and Ngorogoro, where he studied biodiversity and the damage caused by humans. It was following a study on the threatened coastal forests and the land where he grew up, that he decided to act more concretely. From then on, he would create indigenous seedbeds of trees, such as ebony, the famous threatened tree, to encourage the local populations to preserve this resource. The species is in danger because the young trees do not resist frequent forest fires in the dry season, and the ripe trees provide local sculptors an invaluable wood for works of art sold to the tourists, and to Western instrument makers for the manufacture of pianos or clarinets. The nickname "tree of music" then takes a rather cynical dimension.

In a report devoted to his work in 1992, Sebastian is realistic but ambitious: "the 200 ebony growths which I will distribute this year undoubtedly will not make a great difference in view of the rate of deforestation which the area has known, but perhaps the 20,000 that I will plant next year will make it possible for the species to survive." For a good number of observers, Sebastian embodies a soft utopianism, the more so because ebony is an ungrateful plant that requires no less than 30 years to reach maturity.

But his utopianism has come back into fashion. After the rebroadcast of this report in 1995 on an American cable network, a Texas woodworker, James Harris, was thunderstruck. He and his wife wrote a letter proposing their support for Sebastian. The letter, which was addressed only to "Sebastian Chuwa, Tanzania", miraculously, reached its recipient two months later. James and his wife, Bette, proposed to help Sebastian create a foundation to safeguard Tanzanian ebony and to launch a fund drive.

The project then grew in scope. Thanks to the funds collected, it managed to launch a significant number of new plantations. Trees less than one year old are given to local populations who plant them in their fields and gardens (ebony brings good luck according to local beliefs). Ebony is also one of the rare trees near to which corn continues to grow, the roots of the tree enriching the ground and improving its fertility.

To provide all the inhabitants of the area, which receives all the advantages of the plants, Sebastian has created many seedbeds. In 2003, more than 55,000 plants, including 20,000 of ebony, were distributed. For 10 years, Sebastian has created more than 48 "Nature" clubs in the primary schools of the area, and each one has its seedbed from which are allotted more than 1500 plants per annum. The pupils give some to their family, planting others in the garden of the school, and when they move on to the secondary school, they find another young person to take over their tree and to pass along this "weighty" responsibility.

In June 2004, Sebastian Chuwa celebrated the birth of the millionth tree of his seedbeds. The brook has become a river and Sebastian henceforth was recognized and helped by the local authorities. But the philosophy of Sebastian has not changed, he never criticizes the exploitation by the local population of this invaluable wood. He knows that one tree, that the sculptor will spend three months working on, can nourish a whole family. What he condemns, is the irresponsibility of not replanting, that is, not reinvesting in this natural capital. After working for one year with the co-operative of sculptors, he has made them replant more than 2000 trees which compensates for the 1500 that they cut each year. But as only 6 trees out of 10 become mature, he wishes to make them plant nearly 7000 next year.

There's nothing to stop him now! The 30 years necessary for the growers to see the fruit of their effort can appear disproportionate to us, but our three months of travel in Africa showed us that African patience does not have limits. So much the better for the future of Mpingo!

 

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Last revised 21 April 2008.