Here’s Veronika’s and Johnny’s story about volunteering with Friends of Usambara, Tanzania.
What is FoU?
Friends of Usambara (FoU) is a non-profit organization based in the mountains of Usambara in Lushoto, Tanzania. It employs over 300 local people in high season and during significant actions. It has a fixed team of around 30 people. 70% of them are women who work in the fields, take care of the trees. Most of the men are working as tour guides, as they have better English skills. The activity of FoU divides into two categories: a tree plantation and a tourist agency.
It all started in 1997 with an NGO travel agency. At this time, only a few tourists were visiting the Usambara region, and FoU started to promote tourism here. Slowly, the idea of giving back to the community grew, and they began to save up money to invest in a project that would benefit the local people. In 2014, FoU decided to plant trees for many reasons. The mountains were the ground of illegal deforestation. Therefore, planting trees would allow people to continue to live in their original nature and would also enable tourism to go on. “No nature, no tourism” as told us Yassin, the CEO of FoU. Today, Friends of Usambara wish to conserve nature and to improve the living standards of the communities.
The actual values of FoU are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals with the focus on promoting gender equality and empowering women, raising awareness about HIV/Aids and employing young people
As we asked “Why Usambara mountains”, the first answer was “We love Usambara”. Most of the workers here are from the region and want to protect it. Usambara is a big water reserve. It represents 5% of the available water from Tanzania to the south of the continent. Many villages down the mountains and even big cities get their water from this green region. If the hills are conserved, millions of lives (human and non-human) will still be able to have access to drinkable water. With this fact, FoU acts to save the next generations.
Right behind the main office, we find a middle-sized tree nursery. This nursery is the temporary home of 13 million seedlings. Here, we counted about 20 different species of trees, all local. For example, we find coffee trees, fruit trees, eucalyptus, etc. The trees will stay between 6 to 12 months in the nursery before they are brought and planted in specific areas. The first area locates around Lushoto; it is wet and cold. When we go lower, we find a semi-wet cold area, and when we get to the sea level, the territory is dry warm. The trees cannot be planted randomly, and the team knows perfectly where a specie will grow the best. The trees are also not planted randomly in the ground. The planting sites are diverse
Who are they working with?
They work with villagers for their farmland, with the government to take action against soil erosion and with the search engine Ecosia. It is with this last partner that FoU takes a significant action against climate change. They got financial support from web searches for two years to plant 9 million trees. The partnership started three years ago with a first contract to plant 3 million trees. FoU has planted 5.7 million, and following this success, Ecosia renewed a contract for 9 million new trees.
The partnership with the government is a big help for FoU. They recognize the importance of their work, and to protect it, the local authorities create laws against deforestation and distribute fines to the people who don’t respect the plantation sites.
In total, they have planted more than 22 million trees all over the mountains. The poorest communities also receive these trees.
Protection of environment
To protect the trees that FoU plants, education has a crucial role. They firmly believe that if people know about the necessity of the trees, they will take care of them instead of cutting them down. In each of the 20 schools, they plant trees. Children are taught how to take care of the trees and what are their benefits. To each farmer, they give trees and make sure they are used as planned. They also often visit the planted sites to make sure the trees are still there. If not, the authorities will give a high fine.
In the reforested areas, guards are controlling that no tree is illegally cut. Cutting trees in these areas is an official crime. Of course, people need trees for their usage such as building houses, getting firewood to cook and warm their households during cold days. That is why eucalyptus trees are useful. This specie grows fast. In 5 years, it is already over 10 meters high and is ready to be cut for private usage. They plant trees close to households, and each time one is cut down, they plant two as a replacement. Fruit trees are also given to farmers so that they can reduce food cost and improve health.
What are their goals?
Through their work, Friends of Usambara is a partner of many environmental organizations. They have even won regional, national and international awards, and become an influential NGO. Their goal is to create a manifest for eastern African countries. They receive rules and advice about how to plant trees and how to work with the local communities. They are now about to get the recognition of being the 23rd hotspot of biodiversity on earth.
Usambara’s sustainable Eco-tourism
As a travel agency, Friends of Usambara engages in sustainable and eco-tourism. Following their wish, tourism should be a respectful way towards nature and the people to be thought everlasting. That is why 20% of their tour revenues are directly invested in their tree plantation while practising the same prices than other tour companies in town. It is also a way to give the trees for free to those in need.
Tourism should benefit the local people, that is why FoU employs many people from the region. It should also be responsible, that is why FoU is also an environmental project, and this allows the locals to not depend on tourism. While knowing the advantages of tourism, such as creating jobs, bringing foreign currencies and increasing the Gross Domestic Product, FoU is fully aware of the disadvantages.
Many jobs are seasonal. It means for FoU that 10 of their 17 tour guides have no employment during the four rainy months. A big problem that faces each African country is strict culture. The weather is indeed hot, but locals don’t wear short pants. Wearing one in public is disrespectful and can create similar behaviour among the locals, which can bring fights within the population.
Other fights are due to luxury tourism. Locals build some hotels for a low salary and, once the hotel is finished, the locals are not involved any more. Excuse for that is the lack of education. Those hotels want to propose the best services to their customers. Therefore, they need to provide hot water. To warm up water, they need wood, and to get cheap wood, they deforest illegally. It is now more controlled, but it happened in the past years in Usambara, and it still happens all over Tanzania.
Another negative impact is inflation. Sellers practice higher prices for tourists and this creates the problem of people wanting more money and starting practising high prices for everybody. Some sellers are not affordable any more for local people. Sustainable tourism, practised by FoU, takes care of these negative impacts. The organization doesn’t want to give people money but trees because it allows the communities to manage their own business and reduce their cost in food and wood. When they save money, this money will be injected within the community and will improve the financial condition of the whole population.
Future of FoU
The project for next year is to implement a recycling system in Lushoto. FoU already separates the green waste from the rest and compost for their plantations. They know something needs to be done. Currently, they’re developing a solution town-wide. Yassin adds that people are aware of the recycling need, and a day per month, the whole population cleans the town. They also continue their effort to educate people not to dump their garbage. For their nurseries, they are looking for a solution to stop to use polythene tubes and try to find a compostable alternative.
FoU has a very bright future in front of them. With their new international recognition, they hope to grow bigger quickly in the next few years. They will attract more tourists, generate more profits and invest more in their diverse projects. Besides an eastern African Manifest, they also want to create a national operating system thanks to their close collaboration with the Tanzanian government.
We have been delighted to be part of this vast environmental project that Friends of Usambara has created. Most of our activities were in the nurseries: preparing new beds for seeds, cutting roots and move seedlings. We have also brought them a unique variety of tree: Diospyros kaki, commonly called kaki fruit. Hopefully, the seed will grow and give the delicious kaki fruits within five years. We were also glad to share our pictures with them, to use for their promotion (Facebook, website). They are now aware of the website “Workaway”. Soon a profile will be published, and the site will receive more international volunteers. We participated in one action of bringing 12000 trees to three different villages and helped them offload the truck.
We have learned a lot from FoU. Could see and hear that people are acting against climate change while respecting and involving the local communities. We know now a bit more about how to handle a tree plantation. Very grateful that they showed us this aspect. We wish Friends of Usambara the best for their future!
Veronika & Johnny FWP18