Butterflies, Lemon and Clover: Replanting Life with Community Forests International

The Beginnings

In the early days, Mzungus (aka the white man) referred to Pemba Island as Al Jazeera, meaning ‘The Green Forest’. Pemba is one of the islands constituting the nation of Zanzibar in Tanzania and is rich in natural resources. In last 10 years however, Pemba has experienced a 25% decrease in the annual marine catch.  Deforestation has also become a serious problem. Pembans clear the land for various uses including cassava harvesting, home construction and to make charcoal which is exported to Zanzibar. Pemban fishermen started becoming concerned about pressures on the water and land. 

In 2006 Jeff Schnurr, CFI’s  Executive Director  went to Pemba to work with an organization run by Mbarouk Mussa, the Director of CFP. Jeff and Mbarouk talked with the group of men that included the concerned fishermen, about the destruction of the natural resources both terrestrial and marine. Together, they began a tree-planting initiative in an effort to reverse the damage being done to the Island. Upon Jeff’s return to Canada, he turned this initiative into Community Forests International (CFI) and Mbarouk began Community Forests Pemba (CFP). Hundreds of Pembans joined in the work of planting trees in an effort to protect their costal home and provide food and timber for their livelihoods.

What we Must Do

CFI and CFP are mainly volunteer-driven, run by Canadians and Pembans dedicated to sustainable forest practices and education. Despite operating on a minuscule budget, Jeff and Mbarouk and the communities they work with, experience fulfillment when they see the literal fruits of their labour. Community members themselves have built 14 nurseries so far where they grow multiple trees and plants including Indian almond, Pemban almond, orange, lemon, orange, mahogany, litchi and grapefruit and mango- five different types Mbarouk pointed out. A major part of their success is that communities maintain 100 percent ownership of the nurseries. Once the fruit trees and stands of timber are mature, they belong to the people and not to CFI. To Jeff, the best part of this work is seeing people realize what they can do for themselves and take ownership. “You can watch the progress happen” He adds.  “The act of planting a tree is one of the most symbolic and one of the most environmental acts you can take.”

Mbarouk is fulfilling a sense of duty: “Because I’m coming from Islam, it is my responsibility to replant the trees.  Any destruction that appears you can say that maybe it is punishment for not being involved.” For him, the satisfactions are many. He is relieved that women can now collect firewood within safe distances of their homes, saving time, energy and reducing their exposure to danger. He is also pleased that Pemba’s rainy season, which had become rather unpredictable, is stabilizing. 


The organization’s intent was to support sustainable livelihoods however Pembans are seeing many ecosystem results as well. One exciting occurrence is the return of different animals and plants   “now you can find them in different areas where we have planted trees” Mbarouk stated excitedly. “Other times and in other areas you couldn’t even find butterflies but now you can see butterflies and birds.” They’ve discovered that new plant will actually grow when they wouldn’t before and some of the residents people don’t want to cut the trees down after witnessing the return of so much wildlife. Farmers and livestock are receiving their share of benefits as well. Cows and other livestock can now rest in the shade of the trees whereas before, they were dying because there was no place to escape the heat.

And the initial problems that Mbarouk, Jeff and the fishermen had notice of are being addressed. The tress were  helping stop soil erosion, rebuilding soil health and improving nutrient cycling, providing shelter against storms by acting as a coastal buffer zone.  A coastal buffer zone could help and island community like Pemba in the face of a catastrophe such as a tsunami.

Women’s Work

 “One of the reasons why this project has been so successful is because women can participate and do” Jeff said when asked about numerous women in their photos planting, harvesting and building.  One nursery that Mbarouk started is largely run by a group of widows. They have been the driving force since they are usually affected the worst by crises. The demands of running a household don’t afford many women a lot of time to work on the nurseries, but for those who find the time “they embrace it” said Jeff.  There is also no contention between men and women who work side by side. “Some of the time they are sharing jobs” Mbarouk explained “maybe the hard jobs, maybe construction is the responsibility of men and the other lighter duties such as pot-filling can be the women’s job” But the women do take part in construction as well.  Even the children help out by collecting seedlings and bringing them to the farm to plant.     

Plans for Future

CFI’s future plans include innovation- switching from plastic bags in which they plant their seedlings, to organic casing;  expanding internationally- they currently have a program called Global Schools Link that partners worldwide for cross-cultural environmental education; and building capacity. “It’s pretty much run on a handshake and a smile thus far” confessed. But what they’ve achieved has been significant nonetheless. Reviving an ecosystem, beginning to restore livelihoods of hundreds of people and are fostering ownership over tree-planting initiatives and providing sustainably education to adults and children alike are beginnings to be proud of.

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