Why the Miombo Woodlands Matter for Southern Africa

About the Author

Rono Kibet is African Wildlife Foundation's Content Strategy Manager based in Nairobi, Kenya. More

The Miombo Woodlands, a vast expanse of vegetation stretching across Southern Africa, represent a hidden lifeline for over 300 million people. This broad belt, running from Angola in the west to Tanzania in the east, is not merely a source of livelihood; it's a sanctuary for some of the continent's most crucial biodiversity, with over 50% of the remaining elephant population calling it home. Despite its significant role in providing essential resources like water for agriculture, drinking, and hydropower, the Miombo Woodlands is often overshadowed by rainforests such as the Congo or Amazon.

While significant portions remain intact, these natural woodlands face threats from agriculture, ranching, charcoal production, and illegal hunting. To address these challenges, Mozambique spearheaded the Miombo Woodlands Declaration in 2022, signed by 11 SADC countries. This initiative prioritizes sustainable management of the ecosystem's natural resources.

Building on this, last month Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi convened the Miombo Woodlands International Summit in Washington DC, US. The summit brought together high-level ministers from all 11 SADC countries alongside international NGOs like the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), World Conservation Society (WCS), Rainforest Alliance, development partners including US government development agencies, private sector, research, and academic institutions among other partners. The summit aimed to advance conservation efforts by addressing critical issues, raising awareness, and facilitating discussions to develop a unified conservation approach.

We spoke to Edwin Tambara, AWF’s Director of Global Leadership, about the importance of Miombo Woodlands and the key takeaways of the recent international Summit.

Q: Why is Miombo Woodlands vital to Southern African communities and their conservation?

Edwin Tambara (ET): Let me start by saying, this is a subject I'm passionate about. My childhood in Domboshava, Zimbabwe, was shaped by the majestic Miombo woodlands. These weren't just scenery; they were the essence of our community's life. I remember gathering fiber from Musasa trees with my father, a versatile resource for ropes, thatching roofs, and bundling vegetables. The woodlands provided shade, sustenance, and a sacred bond between us and the land. Preserving Miombo Woodlands is not just a conservation imperative, but a deeply personal journey for me.

Miombo Woodlands are dominated by Musasa and Munondo trees (Brachystegia speciformis and Jubernadia globliflora). Including grasslands, shrublands, and savannas, they comprise the largest ecosystem of dry tropical forests in the world, covering over 1 million square miles across Southern Africa. The woodlands play a crucial role in supporting the Greater Zambezi, a vital transboundary hydrological basin. Millions depend on them for essential resources like wood, fruits, fiber, medicine, freshwater, and hydropower generation. Additionally, they offer vital services like carbon sequestration, soil fertility, and erosion control. The Miombo Woodlands are crucial for hosting some of the continent's most important biodiversity, including over 50% of the remaining elephant population.

Q: Why was the Miombo Woodlands International Summit convened?

ET: Following the first summit in 2022, the recent summit aimed to check on the progress of the initiative and address emerging issues. Led by Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi, it saw representation from all 11 signatory countries at the ministerial level, as well as parliamentarians, conservation organizations, the private sector, and development partners. The conference aimed to raise awareness, mobilize support, and promote the Miombo Forest's potential in contributing to global efforts on climate change, biodiversity conservation, and integrated sustainable development.

Q: The conference addressed key issues. Can you elaborate?

ET: Key discussions at the Conference included energy transition, payment for ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation for peace, and investment in conservation efforts. Miombo Woodlands play a vital role in hydropower generation by sustaining water sources in the region. Sustainable practices are needed to ensure the longevity of dams and continued electricity generation.

The conference explored utilizing payment schemes like carbon credits to generate revenue for conservation and support local economies. The transboundary approach to managing ecosystems and biodiversity was acknowledged as fundamental to promoting peace and stability. Lastly, discussions addressed the intersection between Miombo woodlands and vital production sectors like forestry, agriculture, energy, and tourism. There was agreement that the future and integrity of Miombo ecosystems largely rest in how we pursue growth in these sectors.

Q: Can you share some specific examples of AWF's work in promoting sustainable management practices within the Miombo woodlands?

ET: Certainly. In Kilombero, a vital area within Tanzania's Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor (SAGCOT), AWF collaborated with a diverse range of stakeholders, including government agencies, commercial producers, farmers, research institutions, and others. Together, we implemented strategic land use planning initiatives to foster sustainable agriculture. Through these efforts, we were able to safeguard critical Miombo forests, protect watersheds and wildlife corridors, and ensure safe passage for iconic species like elephants. Importantly, our approach also led to increased agricultural productivity, benefiting both local communities and the environment.

Similarly, in the Mid Zambezi Valley, we addressed the issue of deforestation caused by traditional tobacco curing methods. By partnering with small-scale tobacco farmers in Hurungwe District, Zimbabwe, we implemented initiatives such as tree planting for woodlots and the construction of fuel-efficient tobacco curing barns, like rocket barns. These interventions significantly reduced the reliance on forest resources and effectively curbed deforestation in the area. Currently, we are in discussions with stakeholders across the tobacco value chain to expand these successful initiatives, further promoting sustainable practices and conservation efforts.

Q: What strategies are being implemented by Southern African nations to address the challenges of biodiversity conservation?

ET: Many countries recognize the economic value of biodiversity and are taking steps to mitigate its decline. South Africa and Zimbabwe, for instance, are placing significant emphasis on developing biodiversity-based economies within their biodiversity strategies. They have established dedicated strategies for the development of this sector. AWF has collaborated with countries like Zimbabwe to conduct biodiversity economy assessments. These assessments aim to understand the contributions of various sub-sectors, such as forestry, sustainable hunting, or tourism, to the national economy. By gaining insights into these sub-sectors and how natural resources are utilized, countries can formulate policies that foster the growth of the biodiversity economy. This, in turn, can lead to enhanced employment opportunities, increased revenue generation, and conservation of biodiversity.

Q: Looking ahead, what promising avenues exist for Miombo Woodlands conservation?

ET: We need conducive policy frameworks and integrated spatial planning to conserve Miombo Woodlands. Embedding biodiversity safeguards in sectors like agriculture, forestry, and tourism is vital for sustainable practices. Promoting biodiversity-based economies, which include diverse value chains from fruit to medicine, can spur economic growth while benefiting local communities. Carbon payment systems offer another avenue, but they must prioritize local benefits to empower communities in transitioning to green economies. As a steward of Miombo woodlands, I believe inclusive and wise investments can protect this ecosystem while advancing socio-economic development.