The Tanzanian butterfly effect:

Community enterprise reduces poverty among forest dwellers

By Henry Neondo in Brazil

A non-governmental organisation is partnering up with the help of grants from several donors, to introduce a butterfly export business among farmers living in the Amani community in the Usambara Mountains , a biodiversity hotspot of global significance.

Farmers there earn a meager living on small plots of land, producing cash crops such as cardamom, cloves, coffee, tea and bananas. They have no electricity and little access to health and education services. But the butterfly effect is starting to show.

"This year the community will earn US$50,000 from their butterflies, up from US$45,000 last year," says Charles Meshack, Executive Director, Tanzania Forest Conservation Group (TFCG). "Next year we expect total revenue to be about US$60,000," he adds.

The story of the butterfly-producing community of Tanzania was presented this week, along with those of forest communities from other tropical nations in Africa, Asia and the Americas, during an international conference on community forest enterprises held in Rio Branco, capital of Acre, one of eight states that comprise the Brazilian Amazon.

The event, organized by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), IUCN – The World Conservation Union and the Global Alliance of Forest Communities, has brought together 250 representatives of community enterprises from more than 40 countries. It will continue through Friday, 20 July 2007.

The source of new money for the Tanzanian forest dwellers is several species of butterfly endemic to the region, including the beautiful Hypolimnas antevorta, a large, deep-blue butterfly with white and light-blue stripes and dots. Another species popular with North American and European exhibitors is the Emperor Swallowtail, Papilio ophidicephalus, the largest butterfly in the area – and the one that commands the highest price.

The idea of a butterfly farm in the Usambara region first emerged in 2001 after an American student studied the feasibility of adapting a successful Kenyan butterfly farming enterprise there. With support from several donors, TFCG set up the Amani Butterfly Project with the joint aims of assisting community development and conserving local forest reserves.

"Initially we thought it was a bit silly. How can you get money from butterflies?" says Meshack. "But when we learned more we realized its potential."

Many villagers were also receptive to the idea and received training from TFCG. Larvae were harvested in surrounding natural forests and nurtured on host plants established in village gardens. Netting was installed to keep predators, particularly birds, at bay.

By 2003, pupae were being air-freighted to private zoos in Europe and North America . Fortunately for the growers, the butterflies live only a few weeks once they emerge from their cocoons, so exhibitors always need more pupae.

The success of the venture is helping to transform lives.

"There have been many changes," says Amiri Saidi, who has been working with the butterfly farmers as project manager for six years. "The income of participating farmers has increased by at least 20%; some are now focusing entirely on butterfly production. Many are involved in executive committees that approve prices for the products. There are also smaller committees on things like the environment and credit, so villages are becoming more organized."

Originally, TFCG thought that the butterflies would be farmed collectively by the community. But some farmers shirked the work and there were stories of exploitation.

"We have found that many people, and women in particular, prefer to do the farming on an individual basis, so that they get rewarded for their efforts," says Meshack.

Although going it alone, the farmers have agreed to contribute 7% of their earnings to a community development fund in return for their continued use of the forest. Four new school buildings have already been built with this money.

The farmers are generating new information about their business, too.
"They know more species than I do," says Saidi. "They are experimenting with different plants and looking for ways of breeding other species."

The forests are better protected now. The community knows that the base populations of butterflies and host plants must be conserved if the enterprise is to continue. A recent survey found much higher conservation awareness among butterfly farmers compared to those not involved in the venture.

"The connection between conservation and the business opportunity is very clear to them," says Mesack. The butterfly populations in the forest have been unaffected, he added.

Meshack and Saidi see potential for continued expansion of the butterfly business – both in the Amani community and in other parts of Tanzania . One way is to farm new species and another is to find new buyers.

But there are constraints. With the success of the venture has come increased attention from the Department of Wildlife and the potential for new fees and taxes. Clearing customs can be difficult, too. Butterfly exports are very time-sensitive – a day’s delay can ruin the product.

"So far, the scale is reasonably small and there haven’t been many barriers," says Meshack. "I am hoping we can work with the authorities in a transparent way to deal with the issues that will arise as the enterprise grows."

And as the butterfly flaps its wings.

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