MUHEZA, Tanzania (AlertNet) - Khadija Mtungakoa, a 38-year-old mother of three, wears a broad smile as she prepares food on her energy-saving stove.
She explains joyfully how it has helped reduce her reliance on the firewood she gathers from the nearby Amani Nature Reserve in Tanzania’s Muheza District.
The government established the reserve in 1997 to protect the unique forest ecosystem of the East Usambara Mountains, a range in the Eastern Arc Mountains.
Mtungakoa’s stove, made of clay soil and cow dung, stays hot for much longer than a conventional model, which makes it more efficient when simmering and allows her to reheat cooked food. And it uses much less wood.
Mtungakoa, who lives in Sakale village at the foot of the reserve, says she used to collect two to three piles of firewood per week.
“But since I got the improved stove in 2011, I only need two pieces of firewood that I use for one week,” she says, giving credit to the Eastern Arc Mountains Conservation Endowment Fund (EAMCEF) which supports the cookstove initiative.
Just over half of the 354 households in Sakale village now have the fuel-efficient stoves, and the Tanzania Traditional Energy Development and Environmental Organisation (TaTEDO), which supervises their production, is working to get them to the rest.
Moudy Nyimbire, a TaTEDO coordinator, says plans to deploy 1,000 stoves could save 1,716 tonnes of firewood a year in 11 villages surrounding the nature reserve.
That would cut climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as helping keep forests intact.
The stoves are given to villagers free of charge to encourage them to use less firewood.
But there are challenges to introducing them in rural areas. Some local experts say the government lacks political will when it comes to environmental conservation, and has not given enough backing to the improved cookstove project.
And in some cases, makers of the stoves have to travel long distances in search of the right raw materials. The stoves are produced by a team of 12 people - six men and six women - trained by TaTEDO and paid a small amount by the EAMCEF.
In general, people in Muheza remain enthusiastic. “(It) is really going to be the beacon of light for the conservation of the Amani Nature Reserve,” says Allan Hiza, Sakale’s executive officer.
Villagers who live near the reserve are still allowed to collect firewood inside it twice a week, notes Amani conservationist Mwanaidi Kijazi.
Since 2006, the EAMCEF has funded around 150 projects aimed at preventing further environmental degradation in the Eastern Arc Mountains.
The projects range from community conservation and activities to improve livelihoods for people living next to forests, to research on protecting biodiversity in the mountains, and climate risk management to keep the ecosystem healthy.
One of the main aims is to halt deforestation, which contributes to climate change.
With $5.9 million from the Norwegian government, the fund is now implementing a five-year programme, from 2011-2016, focused on improving conservation of the mountain forests.
The scheme is also supported by the Tanzanian government and its development partners, including the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Programme.
EAMCEF Executive Director Francis Sabuni says the work is needed to stop unsustainable harvesting of mountain resources.
Most people living in surrounding rural areas depend heavily on subsistence agriculture and forests for their livelihoods. A growing population is also piling pressure on nature.
Estimates suggest that more than 70 percent of the original forest cover has been destroyed in the area, and only around 5,400 square km of forests remain on the mountains. Over the past 100 years, large tracts of forest have been converted to farmland, or lost due to timber harvesting and uncontrolled fires.
“The Eastern Arc Mountains are the backbone of the country’s economy,” says Sabuni. “The mountains should be protected at any cost.”
At least a quarter of Tanzanians depend on the mountains for their water supply, and hydroelectric power generated with water from the Eastern Arc forests contributes more than half of the country’s electricity.
Sabuni says efforts to conserve biodiversity and improve community livelihoods in the Eastern Arc Mountains need to be extended beyond the target sites selected by the EAMCEF, and funding will be required on a longer-term, sustainable basis.
In Udekwa, another remote village of 3,000 people located 75 km west of Kilolo District headquarters in Iringa Region, villagers are engaged in various EAMCEF projects, including tree planting and fish farming.
Udekwa executive officer Gredson Lekela said villagers are now aware of the importance of looking after the mountains’ resources.
Kilolo District forest officer Godfrey Mwita agreed. “These projects are a saviour to the environment of the Eastern Arc Mountains,” he said. “We have to keep them going to save the mountains from the effects of climate change.”
Lucas Liganga is a reporter based in Dar es Salaam.