Tanzania’s Conservation Icon and Botanist Sebastian Chuwa passes away

by Apr 30, 2014Conservation Threats, Forest2 comments

Last month, the renowned Tanzanian conservationist Sebastian Chuwa passed away at the age of fifty nine. He died on the 9th of April as the result of a stroke. Chuwa was a dedicated environmental conservationist. He saved the endangered African Blackwood or mpingo tree from the brink of extinction, and during his lifetime, he supervised the planting of millions of trees. 

His funeral was attended by more than 1500 people from schools, colleges, national and international conservation groups. Many people travelled great distances to mourn his passing, from other regions as well as the neighbouring countries of Kenya and Uganda. 

Sebastian Chuwa was born in Sungu Village on the southern slope of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. His father, a medicine man and accomplished herbalist, used to take him on trips into the forest and taught him to identify different trees, plants and wildlife and about the medicinal uses of each one. Sebastian was born with green fingers. As a child, he took on various gardening projects, experimenting with different planting techniques in his family’s orchard. After school, Sebastian decided to further his interest in the natural world and won a scholarship to study conservation at a prestigious wildlife institute in Moshi, Tanzania. 

Acclaimed Botanist

In the field of botany, Chuwa’s work was recognised both in his own country and abroad. Whilst working as a research field assistant, collecting and documenting plant species of the Ngorongoro Basin, he discovered four new species, one of which was named in his honour. At park headquarters, he established a herbarium of 30,000 plants for the use of the conservation staff, scientists and tourists. During his botanical surveys, Sebastian gathered over 10,000 plants in duplicate to send to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England.

Sebastian Chuwa inspects Mpingo tree planting sites (Photo: Arend de Haas)   

Mpingo Tree

The fate of the African Blackwood tree, or mpingo, was an issue close to Sebastian’s heart. The wood of the mpingo is used by local carvers to make statues and artefacts that play an important role in the local culture. It is also exported to Europe and the United States where it is used to make instruments such as clarinets and saxophones. Over-use of this tree led the mpingo to the brink of extinction, but the issue received little international attention until the 1992 BBC Documentary, The Tree of Music, in which Chuwa is interviewed as a specialist. 

The broadcast of the program led Chuwa and James Harris, an ornamental tuner from Texas, USA, to co-found the African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP). Its beginnings were small. In the documentary, Chuwa says “My 200 seedlings are obviously not enough to make much difference compared with what is being lost. But next year I hope to have 20,000 seedlings to plant.” In 2004, Chuwa’s goal was achieved and more than 20,000 trees were planted in that year alone. Over the years, Chuwa helped to plant more than one million trees in the Mt. Kilimanjaro region and other areas.

Early Rhino Conservationist

Chuwa also worked to protect Ngorongoro’s endangered black rhinoceros. In the 1980s, the authorities caught poachers attempting to smuggle 264 rhino horns out of the country. Chuwa was called in as a specialist to help with the case. Rhino horns, like fingerprints, are unique and each rhino is identifiable by the markings on its horn. From his photographic file, Chuwa was able to identify eight rhinos poached from the protected Ngorongoro area. As a result, Chuwa campaigned for a change in policy and the introduction of individual rhino tracking, an initiative that still receives funding today from international organisations.  

Environmental Education Work

Sebastian believed strongly in the importance of teaching environmental education from a very young age. He set up the Malihai Clubs of Tanzania, a nationwide network of youth groups, consisting of 116 youth clubs, each with up to 300 student members. In these clubs, young people learn how to care for the environment around them and replant thousands of trees every year. 

Sebastian also worked with the African Conservation Foundation (ACF) on the production of environmental education materials, including a video series highlighting the role of children in environmental conservation. “Our team worked with Sebastian in three different locations in Tanzania,” said Arend de Haas, director of the African Conservation Foundation, “Sebastian played a crucial role in finding local actors, locations and the development of the film scripts”. The required funds were raised by ACF and the videos are being used by The Jane Goodall Institute in Africa as part of the Roots & Shoots programme. 

Sebastian Chuwa believed strongly in the importance of teaching environmental education (Photo: Arend de Haas)

In addition, Sebastian  created grass-roots community organisations. He organised group safari outings for local teachers so that they could experience first-hand the wildlife and nature of the national parks in the region. In turn, the teachers began to organise outings for their students. In this way, Sebastian passed his enthusiasm for the protection of the environment onto others. 

Women’s Groups

Chuwa also worked closely with local women’s groups. Until recently, Tanzanian women were not legally allowed to plant trees. In 1999, Land Acts were passed which meant that women were able to own property and gave them the rights to plant trees. Since then, women’s groups have blossomed in Tanzania, with the aims of conservation, self-empowerment and community education. Their projects include the creation of tree nurseries, specialising in hardwood species for reforestation and domestic use, and the manufacture of fuel efficient stoves which save forest resources and dramatically reduce the time needed for women to gather firewood by 50-75%. 

The women’s groups also help women to develop other sources of income, such as bee-keeping, poultry raising and fish farming. The Green Garden Women’s Group, for example, has grown from the 16 women that founded it to having more than 250 members. These women have helped to plant more than 2 million trees since the group began. The group is also instrumental in social activism, in raising awareness of AIDS and the dangers of female genital mutilation. 

New Coffee Varieties for Sustainable Production 

In the Mt. Kilimanjaro region, there are more than 400,000 families dependent on the production of coffee for their livelihood. It is Tanzania’s largest export crop, and contributes more than USD$ 115 million to export earnings. However, diseases such as Coffee Leaf Blight and Coffee Berry Disease have led to widespread crop failures. 

Sebastian worked with the Tanzania Coffee Research Institute to produce and distribute new resistant varieties of coffee trees to replace old, disease-prone trees. The new varieties bloom early so that the berries are mature enough to resist both disease and cold weather in the rainy season. He has already distributed more than 20,000 trees in the Mount Kilimanjaro area. 

Sebastian also developed an organic fertilizer that works as a pesticide as well. The planting of organic hardwood seedling provides shade and windbreak for the coffee plants, and supplies farmers with fuelwood, timber, fruits and nuts. As a result, these trees also protect the small holders from fluctuating market prices and crop failure.

International Awards

Sebastian has been recognised internationally for his work in conservation. In his lifetime, he has made an important contribution to the field of botany and his work has been published in a book on environmental conservation in Koshibo East. His contribution documents the medicinal uses of local plants for animals and humans, information he collected through forging relationships with tribal leaders. He has travelled all over the world to attend conferences and receive awards. In 2002, he attended an Olympics ceremony in Salt Lake City to receive a ‘Spirit of the Land Award’ recognising his outstanding achievements in environmental education. In the same year, he also received an Associate Laureate Award from the Rolex Awards for Enterprise committee. The funding he received was used to develop the ABCP mpingo nursery and buy a four-wheel drive vehicle for the charity.  In June 2007, Sebastian received the J. Sterling Morton Award, the highest yearly award of the Arbor Day Foundation.

Sebastian’s Legacy

Although his loss will be felt deeply by his friends, family and local communities, Sebastian Chuwa will live on through his work. The organisations that he helped to establish will continue to work towards the goals of education, sustainability and environmental awareness. Elizabeth Chuwa, Sebastian’s wife, and her brother Dismas Macha will continue the work of the African Blackwood Conservation Project.

Sebastian Chuwa believed strongly in the importance of environmental education (Photo: Arend de Haas)

Sebastian’s passion for the natural world – for the preservation of the mpingo tree and the protection of biodiversity – also has a very human side. James Harris: “Sebastian was a light to the world and a great protector of nature in his homeland of Tanzania”. His work demonstrates that conservation is not just about the environment. It’s also about protecting the livelihoods of coffee farmers, enabling the independence of women and educating young people. Chuwa’s work continues to directly benefit local communities and will provide environmental protection for generations to come.  


Author: Katharine Seymour
Guest Conservation Reporter


  1. James Ilukol Okware

    May his soul rest in eternal peace.

  2. Judy Brey

    Sebastian was an inspiration to our safari members back in 2006 when he guided us through beautiful Tanzania. We were so lucky to have had him as our guide, sharing the best wildlife education from the most humble, beautiful man who was very much connected to nature. He told me he loved his home near Kili with his loving family, “much more primitive there”, far away from the crowds.