Purdue alumna aids poor in Tanzania through reforestation project

January 11, 2011

Purdue alumna Mary Schott stands at one of the two properties owned by Trees for Tanzania, a reforestation project started by Schott. Schott is speaking with Muyombi Kyungu, manager of Trees for Tanzania. (Photo provided by Mary Schott)

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Purdue alumna Mary Schott has recently returned to Purdue as a grad student -- at the age of 48. A lot has happened since she graduated from Purdue in 1984 with her horticulture degree. And she uses her knowledge and experiences from Purdue to aid of some of the poorest of the poor in the world in Tanzania, Africa.

Schott started a reforestation project, Trees for Tanzania, after learning about the devastation and mass deforestation on the area.

"Since visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) with my parents when I was 9, I had always wanted to return to help in some way," she says. "Extreme poverty is often associated with deforestation. I felt I could apply the knowledge I had acquired working for an international forestry company to help alleviate poverty through forestry projects.

"Soon after I had drawn that conclusion, a missionary couple that works in Tanzania visited our church. I asked them about the state of the forests in the area in which they work in Tanzania and discovered that deforestation is a huge problem there, and, not surprisingly, so is extreme poverty. As a result of that meeting, Trees for Tanzania was born."

According to the United Nations, Tanzania is the second poorest nation in the world. Schott describes the situation where she does her reforestation work: "The Kigoma region where I work is situated on the west border of Tanzania. Because of its close proximity to Burundi, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo, the population swelled markedly over the years due to the influx of refugees from the neighboring countries. The population pressure took its toll on the natural resources in the area -- especially loss of forest cover. Deforestation exacerbates poverty in many ways -- loss of income from forestry-based work, lack of fuel to cook (rice and beans are the main staples), inability to purify unclean water by boiling, time spent walking long distances to find fuel wood, and more."

One way Schott's work in Tanzania helps people is by employment. "We employ many of our subsistence farmer neighbors (both women and men) to help with the forestry project," she says. "Being able to earn an income has made a positive difference in their lives. They have enjoyed the agroforestry seminars, and tell us they would like to learn more. Three of the women have asked us if we could teach them to read and write, which we hope to do."

Also, Schott's team is starting to see the benefits of their reforestation work. "The trees are growing (we planted 4,000 last November), and our farmer neighbors have intercropped them with pigeon pea -- a multi-use crop that is a nitrogen fixer, food crop, fodder crop, and has medicinal properties," Schott says. "One of the results of the work we've done in Tanzania is that we have learned so much from our neighbor farmers! Also, interest in the project is growing in the Kigoma area. People want to be involved in forestry -- that is the best result."

Schott works with a variety of people in Tanzania, and they have all been welcoming and appreciative. She describes the people of Tanzania with much respect.

"Despite their hardships, the people I have met in Tanzania are gracious and friendly," she says. "I have met government officials, clergy, municipal officials, subsistence farmers, general laborers, businesspeople, people extremely sick with diseases such as HIV/AIDS, leprosy, children, and they all have been hopeful, helpful, and happy. They are such an inspiration."