Community Forests International Plants Trees and Livelihoods on Pemba Island

Erik Fruth

Community Forests International (CFI) started working in 2007 to help stop deforestation and improve food security on the island of Pemba off the Tanzanian coast.

Since then, Community Forests International has helped Pemban communities plant over one million trees, build agroforestry systems to provide fruit and timber, and restore forest ecosystems. As the community’s needs evolved, so did CFI’s work. The organization has set up portable micro-grids of solar panels on the island, constructed rainwater catchment structures, and helped Pemba transition to using fuel-efficient clay stoves. Food Tank spoke with Community Forests International’s co-founder and executive director, Jeff Schnurr, to find out more about their work.

Food Tank (FT): Jeff, your organization, Community Forests International (CFI), works to promote permaculture on a small island called Pemba off the coast of Tanzania. How did CFI begin work there? What was the need?

Jeff Schnurr (JS): In 2007, I was working as a Canadian tree planter traveling. Between tree-planting seasons, I ended up spending ten months on the island of Pemba, Tanzania. Many people I met there were interested in what I did back in Canada, and one individual in particular named Mbarouk Mussa Omar asked me if I could help him start a tree planting project on his island. We traveled to rural communities in order to gauge the interest and seven communities decided to try their hand at growing and planting trees. Local green-thumbs, farmers, and foresters joined our team and helped these communities collect seed and use locally available materials to build nurseries. In 2008 over 100,000 trees were grown and planted. These trees were planted for fruit, timber, and conservation – all based on the unique need of each village. The communities own and operate their own nurseries and the trees are planted on land that we’ve been able to help the communities secure from the local government.

Each community faced different challenges. Trees are cut for charcoal and cooking fuel; forests are cleared for agriculture and house construction. Once we started with trees, we realized that food production was essential in order to provide an income and nourishment while waiting for the trees to mature, and began planting rows of food crops, such as millet, maize and sorghum between rows of planted trees. We developed rainwater harvesting systems to provide fresh water and solar energy projects to provide electricity. Tree planting is an act for future generations – a true long-term commitment to community and place and we realized that so many other issues needed to be addressed in order to get to the point where communities could plant trees. Several other initiatives grew out of our first projects.

FT: How exactly does Community Forests International connect communities to the forests that sustain them? What does that look like?

JS: We start with tree planting and then secure land titles for the groups that plant the trees. Then our local staff of foresters, environmentalists and farmers develop long-term plans for the management and use of the forests. Our approach always works to try and find a way for community members to make a living through our projects in order to ensure long-term sustainability of our efforts. In short, we try to make conservation a day job.

FT: Community Forests International has helped Pemban communities plant over a million trees. Why trees specifically?

JS: Trees are a true act for the future and the act of planting a tree is a way that we can all contribute to something that is greater than ourselves. Communities have seen birds and butterflies come back to their forests, and even some of the communities that initially wanted to plant trees for timber have now sought to manage the planted forests for the long-term. Trees have been able to provide a long-term investment to local communities and allowed them to imagine what their villages will look like in 10, 20, even 100 years. We’ve then worked to fill in the gaps with other efforts, like food production, in order to ensure that communities can meet their long-term vision.

FT: How has CFI’s work changed and progressed alongside Pemban communities? How do their insights and opinions inform CFI’s work?

JS: Pemban communities have taught the organization the value of making your living from the natural world that you must conserve. Oftentimes, the concept of economic development is polarized against environmental conservation. In Pemba, we learned that we could live on the land, make a living and improve the natural world in the process. This paradigm shift now influences the organization’s work in Canada – we work to support economic opportunities that restore or improve natural systems and that concept was really driven home by our Tanzanian partners. This has taken the form of organic agriculture apprenticeships at our organization’s farm, or carbon offsetting projects that support small-scale restoration forestry.

FT: What are your organization’s proudest moments? What challenges did CFI face to achieve those successes?

JS: Seeing how the trees have grown – seeing the impact has been so inspiring. The transformations on the island have been so remarkable – hundreds of acres of agroforestry food production, over a million trees. In Pemba you can walk over vast swaths of land and see papaya, mango, avocado and black mahogany trees. You can see beehives providing pollination and honey next to kitchen gardens providing peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. The change is visible, and it’s something we are all proud of.

We’ve had considerable challenges. Early on, several government institutions tried to push us out of the communities we were working in. We also have had some communities lose several thousand trees to pest and disease, and that’s always really hard to deal with. We’re lucky based on the strong sense of community between the people we work with though, and often a neighboring community will help provide trees to a village that’s experiencing problems with seedling production.

FT: Ultimately, what is CFI’s end goal? At what point can stop and say your time in Pemba is done?

JS: We want to transition our organization from an implementing agency to act as a platform. We’ve built a facility that we’re calling a Rural Innovation Campus in Pemba as a place that farmers can come and share their knowledge but also learn. We work to mitigate risk through sound technical support and information. The end goal would be that Pembans have the facilities and access to information required to pilot and innovate their own solutions without any external support. We need to create a culture of innovation and information exchange, of rapid prototyping and continuous learning. As the climate shifts around us we need to build the tools required to adapt, and we need to build them quickly. The end goal is that Pembans can work to solve complex challenges and then share their work with the world. We hope community leaders from other countries can come and learn from Pemba. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the solution to climate change came from the people that need it the most?

FT: How can our readers get more involved with Community Forests International?

JS: We’re currently running a crowdfunding campaign in order to support our work in Pemba. If our campaign is successful, we will bring a Swahili-speaking permaculture teacher from Kenya named Joseph Ntonyoi in order to train our staff, local farmers and community leaders at the Rural Innovation Campus. Those trained will then go on to share their knowledge with hundreds of others. If your readers could contribute to or share that campaign, we’d be grateful.