MEET ALLAN SCHWARZ – THE HUMBLE CABINET MAKER

AND DIRECTOR OF MEZIMBITE FOREST CENTRE

Journeyman cabinetmaker, architect, academic, environmentalist.

South African born Allan Schwarz crafted cabinets and worked with wood from a young age, and this artistic profession sparked his initial respect for this biological resource – and brought about his sustainable development concept that he likes to call ‘conservation by design’ along with the first and largest indigenous trees nursery and reforestation programme in Mozambique – The Mezimbite Forest Centre.

“One of the things about working with wood is that you’re designing with a biological resource, not a capital resource, and from day one you are dependent on how that thing grows and therefore the issues of sustainability are substantial.”

Mezimbite began as a small woodworking business and over time evolved into a conservation organisation that Allan describes as “a little bit different to other organisations”.

“We don’t ring fence something and say ‘look after it’.  The last thing we do is actually tell people to look after it.  We analyse what the real problems are, related to the loss of forest, and we then find viable economical alternatives which are sustainable to displace the activities which are destroying it.”

Mezimbite Forest Centre integrates sustainable design, forest management and education and training, while the forest resources are used for employment opportunities for members of the surrounding communities, who work to produce both timber and non-timber consumer ready products.  As a result of their employment at Mezimbite, individuals from the surrounding communities have increased their income by a factor of fourteen.

“It takes people out of abject poverty quite a few steps up the economic chain, they’re going to have disposable incomes and that changes somebody’s life.  What’s really important is they then have a bit of disposable time which also means that they can think about what they are doing, so that’s something that’s really important.”

This video is sourced from Mezimbite Forest Centre

Allan emphasises that an enormous amount of forest loss is mainly due to agriculture in the most unsustainable forms, and together with his team have developed various systems to both combat this and avoid making the same mistake.

They have developed a unique system of identifying degraded, infertile areas that struggle to retain water and can’t support vegetative life, and they restore it through agroforestry.  Trees are planted, farmed and cared for, before abandoning the farm to become a forest.

“The beauty of that is that it gives incentive to people to look after the forest that they plant, because they own it, it’s theirs, and they actively participate not only in planting the trees but looking after the trees for the first four or five years of their life and later on going back and doing a little bit of thinning.  We are accelerating the natural process because it takes two hundred to three hundred years to get a forest back on the go and we need to get enough biomass back in the first ten years for it to be meaningful, to start making a change to the microclimate where people live otherwise they are not going to survive.”

By practising sustainable agroforestry, Allan and his team have a dramatically positive carbon effect and have stabilised their microclimate by creating large carbon sinks.  The Mezimbite Forest Centre sequests an enormous amount of carbon which is then stored in the soil and woody biomass.  The Mezimbite team has managed to create their own microclimate which performs climate change mitigation and in turn has made them climate resilient, helping the global issue.  As an African Climate Leader, Allan has a thought-provoking perspective on climate change – that it is not the problem, but rather the symptom.

“Climate change is very real and most of it is anthropogenic, we are the ones who are making a mess.  What has happened with that is it is assumed that climate change is the problem, where in fact climate change is the symptom of a bigger problem.  It’s assumed that climate change is caused by the carbon emissions from industrial activity fired by fossil fuels and massive propaganda related to that – all of which is correct but it’s not complete.  We are all responsible for our part in it, and we all cause climate change in different ways.  And the reason I say climate change is the symptom – it’s the symptom of our bad behaviour.”

This empowering attitude towards climate change has shaped the way that Mezimbite Forest Centre approaches climate change mitigation in their everyday lives.

“We deal with climate on the basis of regional microclimate and on the basis that you own the problem, you’re not a victim, you’re not helpless, this is not a first world problem that we are suffering from – this is our problem that we are suffering from.  And it’s an important perspective that one has to have to address change.  Nobody who works here has ever done a climate course, they don’t need to, because they do it every day.  These are climate positive people and they become that because it’s a part of living in an intelligent and sustainable way.”

Allan lives a definitively ‘green’ life, and completely off-grid.  All energy at Mezimbite Forest Centre is a combination of solar power and diesel and bioproduced oil generated power.  All food is completely organic, and houses are built from wood and earth.  There is no fridge – although he assures us that you can still have a cold beer.  He does remarkably little recycling due to the fact that he doesn’t consume recyclable materials – and if he does, they will reuse, reuse, reuse. Allan shared some advice for anyone who is working towards living more sustainably, and it’s something that we can all think about:

“Just pay attention.  Pay attention and look at what you do.”

This documentary was produced by Jessica Yu & Elise Pearlstein