Page last updated at 23:44 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 00:44 UK

Tanzania tree strikes right note

By Nina Perry
BBC Radio 4, Sounding Post

The wood from Tanzania's "mpingo" tree is used to make flutes, clarinets, oboes and even bagpipes, making it one of the most valuable plants in the world.

Mpingo logger (Photo: Paul Harrison/Mpingo Conservation Project)
Local people want to benefit more from the tree

But illegal logging has threatened its very existence and numbers are in severe decline.

The mpingo, or African Blackwood, has already disappeared from parts of its former range in East Africa.

The forests of southern Tanzania remain a stronghold, although this may not be the case if the current rate of deforestation continues.

The tree still grows in other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, but only in Tanzania and Mozambique does it currently grow tall enough to be harvested.

"If we lose some of these species we are going to lose the sound," says Scott Paul from Greenpeace, which is campaigning to save the tree.

"I am proud of this tree," says Jonas Timothy, "because in other places like Kenya, it is finished."

Mr Timothy works for the Mpingo Conservation Project, based in the district of Kilwa in south-eastern Tanzania.

Local villagers prize the mpingo, which is Tanzania's national tree, for its traditional medicine.

The leaves are used in to help childbirth.

It also widely used for wood carving.

Sweet sound

In other parts of the world, musicians and musical instrument makers value the timber for its unique tonal qualities and durability.

"I make more blackwood flutes than I do anything else," says Irish flute-maker Martin Doyle.

Burnt-out forest (Photo: Paul Harrison/Mpingo Conservation Project)
Most mpingo trees are felled illegally

The wood used to make musical instruments is integral to the sound and so is very much part of the music.

The dark resinous heartwood of the tree is very dense; this creates a strong sound popular for Irish flutes and gives oboes and clarinets their characteristic tone.

It is estimated that between 7,500 and 20,000 mpingo trees are felled for musical instruments each year.

The Mpingo Conservation Project says that musicians should not feel guilty about the origins of their instruments, but there is no doubt they have unwittingly been part of an unsustainable and unethical trade.

The export value of mpingo can be as high as $18,000 per cubic metre, and yet villages where the tree grows receive as little as $30 for logs for the same amount.

It is estimated that in 2004-05 as much as 96% of timber logged in this part of Tanzania was illegally felled.

Tree schools

But the Tanzanian government is taking steps to save the tree from extinction.

Mpingo tree (Photo: Paul Harrison/Mpingo Conservation Project)
Local people use the mpingo tree in traditional medicine

It is trying to encourage nearby villages to manage their own forest resources, under the Participatory Forestry Management strategy.

It means they will also receive more money when the trees are felled legally.

"We have many mpingo trees in the village," says Ahmad Almasi, from Ruhatwe in Kilwa. "The project is helping us conserve the forest."

"Our village is very poor. Only about a quarter of us can afford to buy food, for others it is very difficult."

"But with money from the project, we hope to pay for schools, roads and clinics."

There are plans to harvest the first certified mpingo later this year.

Working on the same lines as other fair trade products like coffee, a small premium would be added to the instruments made from this wood, which will go directly to people in Tanzania.

By 2010 the first certified instruments should be available to musicians who want to buy instruments from a sustainable source.

Jonas Timothy and the Mpingo Conservation Project feature in Sounding Post on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 9 May at 1000 GMT.

Country profile: Tanzania
15 Jan 08 |  Country profiles

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