My perfume tree!

“Mwiri Wangu” means “My Tree” in Comorian, and is the name given to a project carried out by its two “parents”, Initiative Développement (ID) and Dahari. These two NGOs, French and Comorian respectively, have come together to protect the trees on the island of Anjouan by collaborating with the distillers of ylang-ylang.

The archipelago of the Comoros is considered to be one of the world’s biodiversity “hot spots”. Yet, due to a rapidly growing population, natural resources are under immense pressure. In addition to a fragile economic situation, the country has to deal with major environmental problems (deforestation, rivers drying up, erosion and declining soil fertility). 80% of the natural forest has disappeared in the space of 20 years (between 1994 and 2015) with an average loss of 400 ha of forest per year. This is the highest rate of deforestation in the world according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations).

Today, ylang-ylang essential oil accounts for 15-20% of the Union of Comoros’ exported goods. Its fragrance, which captures the Comorian countryside, is highly valued by the international (especially by the French) cosmetics industry. The Comoros are without a doubt the largest exporter in the world. Primary producers in the industry (distillers, pickers and flower producers) represent about 10% of the working population on Anjouan and Moheli, making ylang-ylang an important resource. That said, even though this source of income plays an important part in the Comoros’ development, it poses, nonetheless, a threat to its environment.

In the Union of the Comoros, about 90% of ylang-ylang essential oils is produced in hand-made wood-fuelled stills. Distillation contributes to around 10-15% of deforestation. The production of 3kg of ylang-ylang essential oil in a traditional still requires one ton of wood. This shocking fact motivated ID to work on the energy efficiency in the ylang-ylang production process. Their project, launched in 2013, aims to support the sector and make it more sustainable, in particular by providing energy-efficient equipment (improved distillation stove).

Producing wood-fuel

ID’s “Energy-efficient Distillation Units” (EEDU) technology has so far proven itself: it reduces the amount of wood needed by 50-70%. And they didn’t stop there. The project not only aims to reduce the consumption of wood, but also to increase its production. Therefore, for the second of the project phase (2016-2019), ID partnered up with Dahari to set up a range of activities aimed at replenishing the resource wood by reforestation and promoting sustainable resource management practices.

Germination of filao trees. This tree was much used in distillation at Jimilimé, before becoming rare, because it burns hard and allows to use less wood.

Dahari’s expertise through its global activities in sustainable development and, more specifically, the management of terrestrial natural resources and rural development is well known. The NGO supports local communities by setting up participatory programmes for the sustainable management of key natural resources: water, soil and forest. This campaign includes watershed management plans, support for water management committees, the creation of community tree nurseries and of course … the planting of trees, through the principle of “voluntary planters”.

The combined forces of the two organisations has resulted in an addition to the project supporting the ylang-ylang sector – Mwiri Wangu. This new component aims to set up reforestation campaigns to meet the demand for wood, to fight erosion, and to fertilise depleted soils and is funded by the French Development Agency (AFD), the French Facility for Global Environment (FFEM), the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) and the Natural Resources Stewardship Circle (NRSC). The project’s approach of directing reforestation efforts towards the production of fuel-wood in order to eventually achieve a self-fuelled and sustainable ylang-ylang distillation system is new to Dahari.

Jimilimé, a village with an unfavourable climate

Participants at a public meeting

Activities began at the start of 2017. ID ensured the management and administration of the project, while Dahari was the prime contractor. The first exploratory phase, between January and May 2017, conducted throughout the island of Anjouan, identified the areas of interest. Tree species, quantities, cutting frequency and many interviews with the distillers have made it possible to draw a picture of the current situation. Jimilimé was selected, a village in the north of the island, located in a rather dry area compared to the rest of the island and often exposed to strong winds which has resulted in a less favourable soil-microclimate1. “It was found that in this village, the distillers sourced wood almost exclusively in the area just around the distilleries, on agricultural plots and already depleted land, and not further away as other distillers in other communities do.” explains Chloé Curtet, the agroforestry project manager at ID and Dahari. These conditions as well as the fact that the stills were located far away from roads and difficulties involved in transporting wood from other areas meant Jimilimé was chosen to become the project site.

Other important factors: the wood varieties used for distillation, i.e. of eucalyptus and mango trees, are more limited in the local area than elsewhere. In the past, filao wood was also one of the main types of wood used as it could burn for a long time which meant using less wood, however, there is none left in the area. “The species of tree selected as fuel-wood for this project are so-called pioneer species, able to thrive in areas of “padza” (bad land). The goal is to integrate these fuel-wood species with agricultural practices and soil restoration.” Furthermore, the study showed that there is not a wood “seller” but rather distillers buying from everyone. And what’s more, the distillers themselves were particularly motivated!

The team and the nurserymen of Jimilimé.

The operational phase began in September 2017, by firstly recruiting two local workers in the village. Following that, two technical animators were hired in January 2018. “For the first year, the ambition was not to reach large volumes but to do things well” says the project manager. The choice of species was made based on discussions with the distillers. Three species were selected: cassia, acacia and filao. Although these species are known to be invasive, we have chosen to integrate them because, unlike the native species, they are able to grow in degraded soils. The trees will be closely monitored in order to avoid invasion. The official launch of the tree nurseries was on 10 October 2017. At the same time, supported by a member of Dahari’s rural development team, the mobilisation of planters began.

Twenty planters mobilised

The Mwiri Wangu team supports the planting of trees on a plot of Ongoni.

In mid-November, a public meeting to present the project was held in the village. For the next three months, all efforts were focused on mobilising villagers and the growing the trees. Finally, 20 farmers and landowners – potential future trees sellers – decided to plant on 21 plots located in Jimilimé and in the nearby village of Ongoni. At this stage, the project has expanded beyond the distillers to the economic stakeholders mostly privileged on Anjouan, integrating everyone. By March 2018, they had planted 3,760 trees.

The campaign was later evaluated collectively. “The people who participated were able to point out areas for improvement“, explained Chloé Curtet. The necessity to increase the number of species was identified, and the choice of species for the next campaign has become more interactive. The selection for the next campaign was presented in September 2018: filao, acacia, albizia lebbeck, mango, mandarin, and grevillea robusta. Also included will be bitter orange trees which will enable grafting and future integration of other citrus fruits. In total, 9,700 trees are planned for the 2019 campaign.

2,000 seedlings were planted for the 2017 Jimilimé campaign.

Another campaign has begun in parallel for Gliricidia. This medium-sized tree is sometimes used in distillation, but has various other uses: as hedges, as animal feed, to improve soil fertility and to shade crops. Hence, this side-project will be integrated into “Mwiri Wangu”.

Integration with the village

The project manager believes the project to be on track: “We are working with serious, competent plant breeders who aren’t afraid to ask for advice. The people who have worked with us seem happy with the follow-up. However, we encountered some difficulties in meeting farmers and scheduling appointments.” Moving forward, it’s about keeping participants who are already affected mobilised and increasing the number of reforested plots and participants getting involved. Dahari already has a lot of experience in community mobilisation, but this requires significant effort for newcomers to the team and a village. One of the technical animators, Rachida André, admits: “Before, we had trouble meeting people. The time we spent in the village did not necessarily match up with their availability. Now, we stay overnight with a host family, which allows us to integrate better into the village. People sometimes even come to meet us which allows us to explain what we are doing.

Another problem is other reforestation projects in the area which do not necessarily use the same methods, e.g. paying people to plant while “Mwiri Wangu” is based on the involvement of the plot owners in the planting of trees which provides a better chance of these trees being protected and standing the test of time.

Beyond just fuel-wood, Chloé Curtet explains “ integrating trees into the agricultural landscape is a way of increasing production and thus income on a plot. The land situation is delicate (growing population, confined space) and agroforestry represents a way of improving this. One of the main difficulties people have is imagining themselves in the future. “But when it comes to trees, this foresight is essential. We need to start thinking about planning the plot and its development over time to ensure its proper management”. In order to achieve this, the team demonstrates the economic interest of trees to potential planters. “In 15 years, a mango tree can be cut or pruned to provide wood. In the meantime, it will provide revenue by producing fruit to sell, providing shade for livestock and wood (prunings) for cooking. A tree provides a multitude of services from planting until it is cut down.” In Jimilimé, the reforestation dynamic launched goes beyond just fuel-wood.

1 Set of local climate and soil characteristics