Zanzibar is among developing countries in Africa that have not been spared from environmental degradation, particularly the cutting down of trees for firewood and charcoal production, which is among the worst forms of nature abuse in many parts of the world.
Though Zanzibar looks green throughout the year – with natural richness in terrestrial and marine natural resources – tees have been cut down in many parts of the twin Islands.
The destruction is easily noticeable in the form of charcoal and the bundles of firewood the line village roads ready to be sold.
The charcoal trade provides income opportunities for many people in urban areas, through small-scale retail businesses which are mostly run by women.
Charcoal and firewood are important commodities produced from natural forests by the rural poor and are largely used in urbanized areas to meet domestic energy needs.
While men are involved in charcoal production, women are traditionally known to gather firewood. Income from charcoal and firewood is always a guarantee because they command a huge demand in the market.
Charcoal and firewood suits the living conditions of the urban poor and provides a reliable, convenient and accessible source of energy for cooking at all times, and has a relatively a stable cost in any required proportions.
Firewood and charcoal lead to considerable deforestation, which is now one of the most pressing environmental problems faced by most African nations. It is the main cause of land degradation and reduced natural resources on which the poor depend, contributing to the downward spiral of poverty.
Either people do not know or deliberately ignore the fact that deforestation has negative implications for the local environment, including increased erosion, yet it is estimated that at least 80 per cent of the African population continues to depend on traditional biomass fuels (charcoal and firewood) for its energy needs.
This situation is expected to relatively reduce in the near future due to growing electrification and national campaign to plant trees.
The demand for charcoal and firewood is notable even in army barracks; but awareness campaigns by the government and environmentalists to control the use of biomass fuels have been intensifying recently.
According to Mr Yussuf Haji Kombo, a Master of Science (Msc) degree graduate who has long-term experience in natural resources management, research and agroforestry, Zanzibar’s diversity has a good balance between services, supply and demand. However, like many other poor countries, Zanzibar has failed to escape the fact that her people have a heavy direct dependence on natural resources.
Presently the resources, especially forests, have diminished mostly through human interference both in areas and in species richness. Population growth that has led to a higher demand for settlements, agricultural land and infrastructure development have had an impact on the resource base, threatening the productivity and protective capacity of the resources.
Mr Kombo says in his presentation to the Zanzibar Integrated Environment Policy Formulation Committee in March this year that among causes of forest biodiversity destruction there is over-exploitation, shifting cultivation, slash and burn cultivation, wood cutting for firewood, charcoal production, boat building, as well as sand and rock mining.
He points out that mangroves and agriculture crops are also affected severely.
Mr Kombo notes that in order to face the situation, Zanzibar has set biodiversity conservation strategies that intend to develop a body of resource managers capable of conserving biodiversity; improve legal and policy framework for biodiversity conservation; increase financial resources available for biodiversity conservation and manage ecosystems by using integrated plans to provide economic benefits.
Others moves aim to increase conservation action in the field that is prioritized to maximize effects on biodiversity; increase knowledge of poorly studied species; monitor trends of biodiversity; and to build public support and participation in biological diversity conservation through education and awareness.
There are efforts which have been made, however, to save Zanzibar’s environment. Conservation projects in Jozani, Ngezi, Kiwengwa and Hima Kusini all have objectives of preserving biodiversity through community involvement. Within these projects, benefit-sharing takes a leading position, according to Mr Kombo.
“The issue of climate change is of great concern. Although no significant study has been conducted concerning climate change in Zanzibar, it has been noted that several extreme weather incidences have taken place during the past years,” Mr Kombo says in his presentation, noting that the rapid rise in the sea level and warm temperature recorded in Zanzibar are examples of the effects of climate change induced by environmental degradation.
Energy is another important issue in Zanzibar. Biomass fuels such as firewood, charcoal, coconut and agricultural residues account for 94.7 per cent of the total energy consumed in the islands.
“This has a negative repercussion to biodiversity and the coastal forests of East Africa if no measure is taken urgently,” says Mr Kombo.
On the area of traditional medicine, which Mr Kombo also has some expertise, he notes that conservation of these important habitats is very crucial because they can directly protect and maintain the biological resources within these habitats.
Conservation of natural forests through beliefs and traditions is also important.
In Zanzibar there are many patches of natural forests that have been conserved by local communities for worship and cultural beliefs.
These sacred forests are known all over the islands of Unguja and Pemba.
“The sacred forests are called misitu ya jadi or misitu ya mizimu, in Swahili language, in Zanzibar. The areas covered by the sacred forests are not clearly defined in administrative documents; however, it is apparent that the sacred forests are seriously declining both in size and the quality of their related resources in Zanzibar, Tanzania, as in other part of the tropics,” he says.
For the people of Zanzibar, forests provide numerous essential benefits, many of which are vital to the fundamental wellbeing of the nation. It has been estimated that over 90 per cent of the total population of Zanzibar is dependent on wood fuel as the main source of energy.
House construction relies largely on supply of building materials from mangroves and the coral rag forests. These forests harbour a great number of wildlife species, some of which are unique and endangered.