Sebastian Chuwa, a Tanzania native who co-founded the African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP), passed away on April 8 at the age of 59 following complications from a stroke. Chuwa pursued his lifelong passion for preserving and conserving Tanzania’s plants and trees, specifically the mpingo (Dalbergia melanoxylon, Fabaceae) tree. ABCP has planted almost five million trees on and around Mt. Kilimanjaro since its founding in 1996, and Chuwa helped create more than 100 educational programs in the local communities to raise awareness about the importance of conservation, especially among youth.1
“Sebastian lived a life that was totally dedicated to two purposes: preserving the environment and uplifting his people,” said James Harris, co-founder of ABCP, and his wife, Bette Stockbauer (email, May 25, 2014). “Whether he was overseeing tree planting initiatives or biogas installations or youth education projects, his greatest wisdom was in knowing how to design programs that served these two primary objectives. Living in his ancestral home at one mile elevation on Mt. Kilimanjaro, a symbol of Africa throughout the world, he was determined to restore that mountain to its original beauty and vital function in the northern Tanzanian ecosystem.”
Born on June 11, 1954, in Sungu Village, Tanzania, Chuwa’s love and respect for nature was instilled by his herbalist father, Michael Iwaku Chuwa. His father often took Chuwa on walks to help gather the herbs used in his traditional medicines, and Chuwa became known as an authority on the native plants and their uses. He attended the College of African Wildlife Management (also known as Mweka College) and graduated in 1974 with a certificate in Wildlife Management. After graduation, he worked at the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation District for 17 years, starting as a research field assistant and advancing to the position of assistant conservator.
During his time at the District, Chuwa researched and documented the Ngorongoro Basin’s native plant species, including their medicinal and poisonous properties, eventually compiling and publishing information on the local flora and fauna. Along the way, he discovered four new species, one of which was named after him: Erlangea ngorongoroensis, Asteraceae; Girardinia bullosa, Urticaceae; Cyphostemma chuwa 2593, Vitaceae; and Odontelytrum abssinicum, Poaceae. He also established an herbarium for the scientific community and the public consisting of about 30,000 plants, 10,000 of which he collected in duplicates to send to the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England.
Chuwa’s philosophy of protection extended to animals as well: When he discovered rhinoceros poaching at the Crater, he set up a monitoring system with the rangers of the park and the local villagers who relied on the water and resources of the area. It served as an example for other parks in Africa.2
In recognition of his work, Chuwa was awarded a government scholarship to study plant identification, herbarium techniques, and the gardening of tropical wild plants at Kew, where he received an international diploma in 1990. In 1991, he worked as a botanical officer for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Dar es Salaam, where he continued his nursery work raising and distributing seedlings for replanting.
When he returned to his hometown in the Kilimanjaro area to work as a professional safari guide, the extent of deforestation on Mt. Kilimanjaro inspired him to reach out to the surrounding communities and teach the importance of conservation. His grassroots approach served two purposes: preserving the environment and alleviating the poverty of the region.
In 1992, the documentary Mpingo — The Tree that Makes Music about the threatened status of the mpingo aired as part of the BBC’s series The Natural World. Chuwa served as a consultant for the film and was interviewed about his ongoing conservation efforts. Harris, a Texan woodworker and artist, saw the documentary and reached out to Chuwa. Together, they formed ABCP in 1996. Former HerbalGram Assistant Editor Kelly Lindner wrote about ABCP for issue 80.3
Chuwa received multiple awards and recognitions for his conservation work, including appointment as chairman of the Kilimanjaro Environmental Conservation Management Trust Fund in 1999 and receipt of The Spirit of the Land Award during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. He also received an Associate Laureate award from the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2002, a World Savers award from Conde Nast Traveler magazine in 2006, the J. Sterling Morton Award (the highest yearly award of The National Arbor Day Foundation) in 2007, and a Malihai Club award for 30 years of service with that organization in 2011.1
Sebastian Chuwa will be remembered by his friends and family for his commitment to nature and the people who worked with it. “[Chuwa] was a man with a big heart, big ideas, a big smile and an intelligence that could comprehend a way forward through the most difficult of circumstances,” Harris and Stockbauer added. “A supreme organizer, he united and galvanized local communities in correcting the problems of the present and planning wisely for the future.”
He is survived by his mother, his wife Elizabeth, and his four children.
- The People Behind the Project. African Blackwood Conservation Project website. Available at: www.blackwoodconservation.org/who.html. Accessed May 20, 2014.
- Mushi D. Sebastian Chuwa: Ecologist and protector of ebony wood. Daily News. April 12, 2014. Available at: www.dailynews.co.tz/index.php/features/30241-sebastian-chuwa-ecologist-and-protector-of-ebony-wood. Accessed May 20, 2014.
- Lindner, KE. African Blackwood Conservation Project. HerbalGram. 2008;80:34-37