In Mozambique, Communities Use Wood, Save Trees

Article excerpt

Mozambique has been losing its forests to poor people who scrape a living from this valuable natural resource. Today, some are producing chic wooden bracelets for the world market while conserving precious woodlands.

by Trade Forum editorial team

In the struggle for daily survival, people often ignore the importance of environmental sustainability in creating future economic growth. This was the case in Mozambique's Sofala Province, part of a woodland mosaic stretching across 12 countries from Angola to southern Tanzania, Mozambique and northern South Africa. It is home to some of the most beautiful and rare hardwoods in the world.

More than 200,000 Mozambicans depend on the revenues generated from the forest sector, a number that increases substantially if those dependent on charcoal and firewood are included. However, according to research by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2004 the country lost 16,724 cubic metres of wood to fuel alone.

At the root of this problem are people deskilled by civil war and, as a result, trapped in a perilous downward poverty spiral.

In the town of Dondo, members of a small woodturners' cooperative were making products that were not up to market standards. At the same time, they were targeting a tourism market that didn't exist any more and a local market that was as poor as they were.

But, fortunately, they live in a dry, tropical woodland system where trees grow slowly, making for a unique wood quality. Because it is tropical, the range of trees is diverse and the timber from these trees is more decorative, more stable and more durable. The intense, rich colours range from deep burgundy to ebony.

From penury to Paris fashions

Today, this cooperative and others are turning out high-quality, crafted bracelets that are making a splash at the high end of the fashion accessories market. Their design features bold architectural forms that are flashy enough for the catwalk, stylish enough for magazines and sensible enough to wear.

An ITC-supported pilot project to boost exports in the wood sector helped bring about this change. ITC launched the project in 2004, building on the work of consultant and designer Allan Schwarz. This social entrepreneur was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000 for his work with forest communities to help them earn more from their environment, while preserving it for future generations. Mr Schwarz set up the Sofala Initiative, an alliance between a private company based at the Mezimbite Forest Centre producing top-of-the-range furniture and accessories, a woodcraft cooperative in Dondo, north of Beira, and the n'Hatanga community.

"We had started manufacturing bracelets and other wooden products before ITC's involvement, but we did not have much production or marketing capacity," Mr Schwarz explains. ITC provided technical assistance in practical areas such as product adaptation for various markets, quality assurance, marketing and distribution.

"With ITC's support, we have trained a lot of people in production, as well as in safeguarding the resource base," he says.

The bracelets' beauty, as well as their sustainable and ethical qualities, has opened doors in mainstream as well as "green" and ethical markets. They were a hit at the 2005 Ethical Fashion Show during Paris Fashion Week and are already exported to South Africa through a wholesale agent and small retail network. A European marketing agent distributes to Belgium, France, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom. Distributors are busy in the French Caribbean and the United States. Interest is particularly keen in New York.

A new fashion season is approaching and sales are expected to grow substantially. Already, new clients in New York are expected to purchase more than 1,000 pieces per month.

A buffer stock of about 2,000 bracelets fills orders as they come in. Sales are seasonal, but are averaging 300 pieces a month, which is the breakeven number. …