A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Forest Sustainer- Meet Allan Schwarz

Thirty years ago much of Mozambique was heavily forested. Today, little of it remains. Slash and burn agriculture has been the ruination of the land- a short term means to grow a season or two of crops. In some places only a few tall trees still stand, marking what once was the forest canopy- the rest is just bush. Chinese traders are here too, exporting vast amounts of timber, which leaves Beira port by the truckload.

Allan Schwarz however is trying to reverse the trend. Taking a large piece of slash and burn land, Allan has shown that indigenous forest can be regenerated in a commercially viable way. With the Mezimbite Sustainable Forestry Programme, 25,000 indigenous trees are planted each year, making the programme the largest nursery in Mozambique (Allan jokes that his is a sad reflection of the state of the national forestry programme rather than a indicator of his achievements). Alongside this he has set up a high-end carpentry business, on location, creating quality furniture and jewellery- the latter becoming highly sought after items at the Paris Fashion Fair each year.

Allan adopts the philosophy that if a tree takes 500 years to grow, you better make something that will last from it. So the pieces which are produced at his workshop are designed to be heirlooms, to be passed on from one generation to the next.

Alongside the carpentry, his business also has an oil pressing side to it. Lemongrass, tea tree and marula oils are produced, and Allan is working with the Flora foundation to investigate bio-fuel production. Vegetable crops are also introduced among the trees, which, by creating space for food production, acts as an incentive for forest protection.

‘The whole idea is to look at how you incentive forest conservation creating viable economic alternatives to the activities which are destroying the forest’, said Allan. ‘It is to start creating a culture which consists of give and receive on the basis of doing a fair deal with people and also doing a fair deal with your environment’.

His workers are trained, and their skills are rewarded with much higher than average salaries. Their employment means the survival of the local community.

Allan, who grew up in South Africa, was initially trained as a carpenter. He then went on to study architecture, later teaching it at MIT in the States. Allan admitted that the academic life at MIT was very was appealing, but his passion for the environment brought him back to Africa. To be able to authentically teach about sustainable forestry, he wanted to prove that it could be done. After ten years he has shown it can be achieved, but he did so with huge personal sacrifice. Allan currently lives on a camp within the forest- a far cry from the physical and financial comforts of his architecture days.

It is a simply principle that keeps him there. ‘If you are going to take from your environment, you should give back’, and then jokes, ‘Which makes me kind of a revolutionary, because most people don’t put back’.

I stayed out with him in his camp for about a week, and experienced just some of the challenges of the local bureaucracy and the slow pace of getting even basic things done. Given the context, I’d say his commitment to the environment is quite revolutionary. The crafts are not bad either!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I met Allan briefly at a birthday party at a lodge outside of Cape Town two years ago. Wearing a brilliant smile, he told me and others the story of creating sustainable fashion accesories out of wood from the forests in Mozambique. Although I initially resisted the idea that these artifacts could indeed be marketable, I wore one of them on the way back. They are beautiful.

1:49 a.m.


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