Increased human activities in Urambo and Kaliua districts in Tabora Region have contributed to the loss of what used to be dense miombo forests, thus accelerating the decline in the amount of rainfall compared to past.
As a result, the Tabora region and neighboring locations are at risk of experiencing desertification, despite the several efforts made by the Tanzanian government to control the situation.
Tobacco farming and curing is the major driver of degradation of miombo forests in the region. Other drivers include timber and charcoal production, with the latter being used as the major source of cooking energy for many of the region’s residents.
The District Environment Management Officer (DeMO) at Urambo District Council, Shadrack Yomba, says that during the late 1980s the Tabora Region and Urambo and Kaliua districts in particular received rainfall at an average of 1,000 millimeters annually. “The dense miombo forests accounted for the heavy rainfall,” says Yomba.
“However in the years that followed domestic migrants from the neighboring regions of Shinyanga, Mwanza, Simiyu, Geita and Kigoma invaded the forestlands, and conducted various activities thereby degrading the forests in a manner that they could longer provide ecosystem services. Subsequently the amount of rainfall in the region has gone to less than 800mm now,” notes the District Officer, adding that the climate is now warmer and drier than it was before the 1990s.
Forest degradation has also seen the region experiencing significant loss of natural vegetation resulting from long dry seasons.
“There are number of conservation efforts that the government has made. They include conducting public awareness campaigns for farmers to plant trees, the use of efficient cooking stoves and application of modern methods of tobacco curing. The tree planting campaign has recorded little success due to reduced rainfall and long dry seasons, both of which are, to a great extent, a result of deforestation,” says Yomba.
According to Yomba, only about 20 percent of the trees planted survive the harsh climate.
Miombo woodlands fall in the category of rain forests and in Tabora Region; these are evident in Urambo, Sikonge, Kaliua and Uyui districts. They also extend in other regions of Tanzania including Morogoro, Iringa, Lindi and Mtwara.
“Miombo forests can also be seen in Uvinza and Kibondo districts of Kigoma Region as well as in Mlele District of Katavi Region,” says Urambo District Forestry Officer Jacob Mbeshi.
Some records indicate that a large portion of such forests in Igunga and Nzega districts have disappeared due to expansion of rice farming activities. A member of Igunguli village government in Urambo District, Eliud Luago, shared his experience, saying that in the early 1990s the region was still flooded with miombo rainforests, but later on these disappeared leaving the land bare.
“Farmers cut a lot trees to expand tobacco farms and to get firewood for curing the tobacco. Severe deforestation led to land infertility,” says Luago.
According to Luago, seasons have been unpredictable, with great variance in the amount of rainfall the region receives.
“There are some years when we have experienced very little rainfall, which was bad to farmers. But last year, for example, there was a lot of rainfall which in turn damaged crops and property. Experts say that this variation is caused by climate change and deforestation fuels it,” he explains.
Forest disappearing a chunk at a time
Illegal logging is another driver of deforestation. Loggers move from one area to another, leaving behind a degraded forest and in some cases small woodlots and barren land. Among the areas most affected by illegal logging of miombo forests is Ulyankhulu rainforest in Urambo District.
The 229,600-hectare rainforest was one of the district’s major forests. There was also Nsenda Agricultural Prison forest covering 2,380 hectares, and the Kangeme, Itebulanda and Utenge (KIu) village forests covering a total of 846.5 hectares.
Formerly Urambo District Council owned the 163,482.39-hectare North Ugala Forest Reserve, which was then transferred to Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA).
Mbeshi says that although the transfer of ownership of the forest has contributed to reduced revenue and eliminated economic opportunities from harvesting forest products such as honey, it would contribute to effective conservation as TANAPA has more professional experts in management and conservation of natural resources including the rainforests.
Besides, TANAPA has modern weapons to deal with illegal loggers who are often partners of poachers and they can conduct effective patrols. They also have an adequate budget to meet the needs for natural resource management, which the district council lacked.
The then-acting District Executive Director of Urambo Sadoki Magesa says Ulyankhulu rainforest was invaded by migrants who were attracted by the fertile land and sufficient rainfall for agriculture and livestock, since the early 1990s.
According to Magesa, the number of migrants increased as a result of reproduction and newcomers who took over the land and expanded their human activities, especially tobacco farming and livestock keeping. As a result, the number of livestock overwhelmed the stocking capacity of the area and as such grazing land overran farms, leading to the disappearance of cultivation of food crops.
Miombo forests and rainfall variability
The Ulyankhulu rainforest is the catchment where rainwater collects and flows through several streams, then enters the Igombe River, Lake Nyamagono, Maragalasi River and finally into Tanganyika Lake in Kigoma region.
Due to its nature, the Igombe River Forest Reserve located in Kaliua District is one of the areas that depend on Ulyankhulu catchment for its water needs.
According to the United Nations News, Lake Tanganyika is one of the world’s natural wonders, holding about 17 percent of the globe’s surface freshwater.
It is also the oldest and the deepest lake in Africa, bordering Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania, and offers sources of livelihood for over 10 million people.
Some water from Ulyankhulu catchment flows through Ugalla River, Lake Sagala, the Maragalasi River and finally into Lake Tanganyika.
Thus the coming of migrants who settled in Igombe River Forest Reserve affected rainfall availability and therefore led to the drying up of water sources and the loss of ecosystems in the area.
The Manager of Tanzania Forest Service Agency (TFS) in Kaliua District, Jackson Temu, says that the Igombe River Forest Reserve that was created through Government Notice No. 32 of 1958 covers an area of 244,480 hectares.
“Igombe River Forest Reserve was also the main source of water for Igombe Dam, which supplies water for residents of Tabora municipality and surrounding villages,” says Temu, adding that the water from the Igombe River Forest Reserve flows into Lake Tanganyika through Malagarasi River.
The Igombe River Forest Reserve forest is within the Malagarasi wetlands, which is under the management of TFS. The forest authority also serves Kaliua, Uyui and Nzega districts in Tabora region.
Evidence of severe deforestation
According to Mbeshi, there are no records to show that the 229,600 hectares of Ulyankhulu Forest were degazetted or resurveyed and mapped to reduce its size after the 1962 government notice. However, it hasn't "disappeared."
“We cannot say that the conservation of miombo woodland rainforests have improved, we will be liars ... the situation is not good at all because of increasing degradation,” he says.
The District Forest Officer, Bucheye Wambura, says, “although official records show that Ulyankhulu was a forest reserve, almost every square has been taken over by migrants ... they cut down trees wantonly, making it difficult for us to manage the resource.”
On the other hand, local community members reveal that although they own land and just a "small part of miombo rainforests" has remained, they recognize and follow the rules, regulations and procedures of harvesting forest products.
“We follow the procedures that have been put in place for the management and harvesting of forest products,” says one of the residents, Zubeda Makayo.
But the situation on the ground reveals that deforestation is indeed gaining momentum in the region.
Villages are legally established and registered
Despite alleged invasion and settlement in forests, the migrants have managed to register and obtain official village status, thus they are provided with basic social services such as schools, health facilities and electricity.
However, while the registration certificates were returned to the District Council for verification, migrants have not been evicted from the areas, an indication that their settlements are recognized and accepted by authorities.
The villages in Ulyankhulu include Ukwanga, Mlangale, Unzali, Uyogo, Igunguli, Milambo, Igembensabho and Kasela with the population standing at 29,599 by 2019.
Measures to scale up forestry management
Among the government’s efforts to address the challenges of deforestation was to set up a special assessment committee to look into the state of forests in the country, and make a number of recommendations, including reallocating some forest areas for human settlements.
The Acting District Executive Director of Urambo District Council told this paper that Ulyankhulu Forest is among areas that have been allocated for human activities.
“We have received a note from the government to allow the villages to remain in their settlements, but is not the official way of communicating such matters. ... So this is what I can say for now,” Magesa said.
Meanwhile, some local communities living in Ulyankhulu do not know that the respective area was set aside as a forest reserve. The Chairman of Igunguli Village, which is within the forest reserve, Lucas Lala, says the households with about 6,545 people had no idea that they were living in a prohibited area.
He says that despite the large area being taken over for settlement, agriculture and pastoralism, there were still chunks of miombo forests. This was, however, countered by forest authorities.
Mbeshi argued that after the migrants entered the Ulyankhulu rainforest, they took over the land and started a big conflict with District Council officials.
“We have tried to save the Ulyankhulu rainforest from disappearing and eventually causing desertification in its wake, but migrants had already invaded and settled in the forest,” he says.
According to Mbeshi, proper forest management was one of the outcome recommendations made by Sustainable Management of Miombo Woodlands Project conducted by the government between 2012 and 2017 through funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF).
The project was the basis for employing various measures including patrols that were conducted in collaboration with representatives from the District Council, the police and the KIu forest management committee.
The committee comprised delegates from Kangeme, Itebulanda and Utenge villages. However, in due course participation of the District Council and police in the patrols was withdrawn due to budget shortfalls, among other factors.
“Conducting patrols requires financial and human resources; it is possible that this area has not been given priority, but we are currently planning to make major improvement,” says Magesa. “Under the circumstances, deforestation has been on the increase,” added Mbeshi.
Ecological impacts of deforestation
Mbeshi says another impact on the region’s rainforests is the loss of important tree species such as mahogany that the district authority has imposed a ban on harvesting in order to halt deforestation and mitigate climate change.
Deforestation wipes out wildlife habitat
Deforestation is said to be the major source of the extinction of wildlife.
An expert in the forest industry, who did not want to be named, revealed that due to severe illegal logging, the region is facing loss of wildlife such as greater kudu, sable, reedbuck, lion, and giraffe.
Local community members who live near the Ulyankhulu rainforest say that the wild animals fled to a forest in Igombe and headed for the Kigosi reserve. Other local testimonies point out that there were times when lions headed back from Kigosi, where they had taken refuge, to settle in Ulyankhulu and North Ugala reserves. According to various sources, the increased number of wildlife is now attacking people and destroying crops.
Livestock and drought
Kishike Darushi, a young man from a pastoralist community who was found in the Ulyankhulu Forest Reserve, says there is currently drought that forces them to walk long distances in search of pasture and water for their livestock. “The tree have gone and so have pasture and water for our livestock. But the hot sun also affects us; there is no shade for us to rest while we tend our livestock,” he says.
Despite the challenges posed by migration, settlement and other human activities in the respective forests, poor resource management has been exacerbated by factors such as acts of corruption.
The Guardian did not find any evidence to support these claims but the circumstances surrounding the seizure of forest products such as logs, timber and charcoal indicate negligence in the management and control or corruption.
He says a major source of information about sabotage against forests and the products derived from the resource was mainly community members living in the vicinity of the respective forests. Efforts to control deforestation of miombo woodlands are also directed at forest products, especially logs that are seized.
Official data obtained in Urambo and Kaliua districts show that 28 cubic meters of trees are used through improved burns in curing tobacco compared to 8 cubic meters used for the old one. In this case, the old method of tobacco curing causes the high rate of deforestation, which affects the availability and reliability of rainfall over the years.
The government has successfully set aside forest reserves including KIu and Nsenda Agricultural Prison Forest in order to maintain the sustainable miombo woodland management plan and encourage the use of improved burns in curing tobacco.
This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.