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HURUNGWE, Zimbabwe, March 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One of the world's largest forest conservation projects has managed to curb deforestation in northern Zimbabwe, but the slow sale of carbon credits – on which the project depends – threatens its expansion, its organisers said.
Some 785,000 hectares of prime forest in Mashonaland West province have been preserved since the Kariba REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)project began in 2011.
Villagers make money from the sale of carbon credits they earn by not cutting down the trees, said Charles Ndondo, whose company Carbon Green Africa spearheaded the project.
By protecting the natural forest and planting new trees, the project has managed to prevent emissions of more than 5.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, Ndondo said.
But expanding the project is proving difficult.
"The major challenge is the slow uptake of the credits on the voluntary market," Ndondo said.
Most of the buyers are international companies, who might buy such credits to offset emissions from travel, for instance. Zimbabwean companies have shown little interest and there is no local law compelling them to buy the carbon credits, he said.
There are more than 400 REDD+ projects worldwide, which aim to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, thus offering incentives for developing countries to maintain forests and grow more.
But carbon credits have been slow to sell internationally, because most big carbon emitters face few legal requirements to buy them, and because voluntary buyers - who might purchase carbon credits to compensate for travel emissions, for instance - are not a large enough market.
Zimbabwe faces a particularly difficult time selling the credits because of its complex political situation, experts say.
The money the Mashonaland West communities have received so far - initially from private investment until the Kariba REDD+ carbon credits were issued on the market in 2011 – has been spent on planting new trees, training farmers in conservation agriculture and community projects.
"The rural communities ... are asking for more, yet the financial resources cannot meet the demand," Ndondo said.
Since 2011, more than 50,000 trees have been planted, some 15 community food gardens established, beehives distributed, and more than 200 boreholes have been restored, providing schools and health clinics with clean water.
"We are calling on Carbon Green Africa to expand the project," said Jealousy Matesanwa, a councillor in Hurungwe district, which falls under the project.
"We want more boreholes and more community nutritional gardens. We want more farming inputs under the conservation farming programme," he said.
Ndondo said for the project to expand, more international organisations and individuals have to buy carbon credits.
"If you buy our carbon credits, you have not only offset your carbon footprint, but the money goes towards supporting more than 200,000 lives in some of Zimbabwe's most disadvantaged communities," Ndondo said.
The project has gained traction among traditional leaders in the province. Chief Abel Mbasera Chundu in Hurungwe district said he has introduced stringent measures to curb wanton cutting of trees.
"We are encouraging tobacco farmers to have their own woodlots to cure tobacco. If a farmer does not have such a woodlot we advise them not to grow tobacco," he said.
Tobacco curing alone is responsible for more than 20 percent of the country's more than 350,000 hectares of lost indigenous forest annually, according to Zimbabwe's Forestry Commission.
Chundu said he is also working with agricultural experts to introduce new cash crops as an alternative to tobacco farming.
"We are trying to entice locals with alternative crops like soya beans and sunflower," he said.
Villagers are now planting fast-growing trees like moringa, which can also be used as a herbal tea, with Carbon Green Africa providing the market.
"We are now leading in tree planting with vast tree nurseries at schools in the area," Chundu said.
Chitindiva primary school has planted more than 900 trees in the past two months and over 300 children have been given two trees each to plant at home.
"More than 3,200 gum trees in (Chitindiva's) nursery will soon be distributed to tobacco farmers ... (to) use for curing tobacco," Chamunorwa Govero, a teacher at the school said.
"We want children to embrace the importance of preserving our environment," Hurungwe manager for Carbon Green Africa, Jeremiah Matiza, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Even with slow uptake of carbon credits on the voluntary market, Ndondo said the project will not collapse.
"It's a 30-year project and it has run for only five years. But I will see to it that it will not collapse," Ndondo said.
Carbon Green Africa developed the Kariba REDD+ in four districts in Mashonaland West province - Binga, Nyaminyami, Hurungwe and Mbire. (Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani; Editing by Alex Whiting.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)