Forgotten Forests

Miombo woodlands: the vast southern African dryland forests hiding in plain sight

A belt of expensive timber and African wildlife struggling to survive population growth

The miombo woodlands in northern Zambia. Jeff Walker, CIFOR
22 July 2020
22 July 2020

This story is part of the Landscape News series Forgotten Forests.

When Paula Whyte, a technical advisor for Tanzania-based NGO Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI), visited a miombo woodland for the first time as part of a tree-planting venture, she wasn’t expecting to be quite so taken with what she found.

The group left the port town of Kilwa Masoko at four in the morning, and Whyte spent much of the bumpy truck-ride to the planting site wishing she was in bed or having breakfast – until they drove into the forest just as the sun was rising. “It’s not a very high-density forest, so you still have a lot of light coming through, and it’s grassy as well,” she says. “And it’s absolutely beautiful – I remember being on the back of this truck and just looking around me and thinking, ‘This is stunning. There’s nowhere like this.’ ”

Miombo woodlands are not exactly small. These dry forests and woodlands form a broad belt across much of southern Africa, spanning an estimated total area of around 2.7 million square kilometers (1 million square miles) – from Angola in the west to Tanzania in the east, and down to the northern edge of South Africa. Over 65 million people rely on these ecosystems for their livelihoods, making use of resources such as fuelwood, timber, charcoal production, fruits, honey, mushrooms, medicinal plants and fodder for livestock. They carry important cultural and spiritual significance too – in the Tanzanian miombo, for instance, some tribes bury their dead in sacred groves, and then use these spaces for a range of ceremonial purposes.

But, rather like Brazil’s Cerrado, these well-used, widely-inhabited woodlands frequently fail to gain the attention of conservationists and funders, while emblematic rainforests – such as those in the Congo and Amazon basins – command considerable focus worldwide. “The miombo are widely used, but they are forgotten in the sense that they do not appear in the global discourse on climate change or biodiversity,” says Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “But that’s where you have people, that’s where you can cultivate cereals, and then that’s where you emit a large amount of greenhouse gases when you burn the woodlands.”

A village in Zambia's Nyimba district that depends on the miombo for charcoal production. Mokhamad Edliadi, CIFOR
A village in Zambia’s Nyimba district that depends on the miombo for charcoal production. Mokhamad Edliadi, CIFOR

A contemporary ecosystem

As Whyte described, the trees in miombo forests tend to be spaced apart, due to competition for water during the dry season. Most of the canopy trees belong to only three genera: Brachystegia, Julbernardia and Isoberlinia. They’re large, wide-canopied, leguminous broadleaf trees that can grow up to around 30 meters and considered semi-deciduous because they lose some or all of their leaves for a short period in the dry season, and produce a flush of new, often bright reddish leaves just before the rains return.

Because plenty of light reaches to the forest floor, grasses up to two meters tall grow in many miombo forests, which makes them important grazing areas for large mammals such as white and black rhinos, buffalos, warthogs, sable antelopes and some of the largest elephant populations in Africa. They’re also key habitat for predators like African wild dogs and lions, as well as browsers like giraffes.

While the miombo is widespread at present, it hasn’t always been that way. Much of the land covered is believed to have supported different forest types such as muhulu: dense, evergreen dry forests dominated by tall muvunda (Cryptosepalum exfoliatum) trees and Entandrophragma delevoyi, a relative of the mahogany,in the past. But as humans burned the land for agriculture and hunting – which they’ve done in the area since at least the Iron Age – miombo was the forest type that tended to grow back.

These days, muhulu forests are confined to a few very isolated, uninhabited areas in western Zambia, adjacent Angola and the Katanga area of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where soil is poor and human pressure is limited. “They’re a bit like the araucariaceae in that they’re windows into the past in terms of what the vegetation used to be like,” says Nasi. “And it is very likely that if you protect [miombo] forests from fire for a long time, they will re-establish.”

Locals head out to plant mpingo trees near Ngea, a village in Tanzania. Courtesy of the Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative
Locals head out to plant mpingo trees near Ngea, a village in Tanzania. Courtesy of the Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative

A question of value

Now, much of the miombo is itself under threat, as trees that giraffes have snacked on and lions have sheltered under for centuries are burned for charcoal and cleared to make way for fields of maize.

The Miombo Network – a regional partnership on collaborative land monitoring and management – estimated in 2016 that between 30,000 and 250,000 hectares of miombo are degraded or lost every year. Researchers have also predicted that the combined impacts of climate change and human disturbances could cause 40 percent of the miombo to disappear by 2050.

As the forests become increasingly fragmented, the wildlife that inhabits them – especially the bigger mammals like elephants that require large contiguous ranges to keep themselves fed and watered as landscapes transform through the seasons – is already struggling to survive.

While these forests are relatively fire-resistant, having withstood regular burns for millennia, too-frequent burns can be problematic. “As long as there is grass to burn, the trees are not very much affected,” says Nasi. “But if the fire comes too often, then there is a problem because the small trees, the saplings and the seeds all burn, and then there is no regeneration, so ultimately you end up with a degraded savanna.”

And population growth is driving more frequent burning and clearing, says Davison Gumbo, a CIFOR scientist based in Zambia. “To support more people, you need more land for crop cultivation,” he says. “And the other critical issue related to that is the lack of alternatives. When you have high poverty levels and people struggling to make ends meet, they rely on the miombo.” He says that while traditional management systems have merit, most of those systems in the past “were based on low populations on a lot of land. And that land is shrinking rapidly, while the number of people there is increasing by 2.4 percent per year.”

Inconsistent and poorly-enforced policies at the national level don’t help, either. “It’s very frustrating,” says Gumbo, with the tenor of someone who has struggled hard to make change in the sector for decades. “Technically, we have solutions on the shelf. But they’re not being adopted, or they’re not being scaled up.”

Back in Tanzania, MCDI is working on a mix of traditional and modern structures and techniques to scale up more sustainable use of its miombo forests. The NGO helps communities to get official ownership rights to local forested land; monitor and protect them effectively; and set up sustainable forestry initiatives to harvest, mill and sell Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified timber that fetches a premium price in urban markets.

The organization’s namesake tree, the mpingo (Dalbergia melanoxylon), is actually one of the most expensive timbers in the world – its dense, durable inky-black wood is used for expensive woodwind instruments such as clarinets and oboes. Until now, few local communities have reaped the benefits of this high-value wood, as large-scale loggers and unscrupulous traders taken advantage of forest tenure uncertainty and seized the lion’s share of profits.

As a result, mpingo populations have dwindled below sustainable levels, but MCDI hopes to help change that. “We’ve helped support communities to protect over 400,000 hectares [988,000 acres],” says Whyte, and communities across the country now regularly approach the organization for help doing the same. “I think one of the biggest things is that the [Tanzanian] legal framework is really supportive of establishing ownership and tenure rights for rural communities on pre-existing community lands by demarcating areas as Village Land Forest Reserves (VLFRs),” she says. “There’ are obviously financial issues attached, because there are a lot of costs incurred in setting something like this up, but aside from that, I think it’s fairly easy to try and scale up.”


Leave a Reply