Summer Rayne Oakes, an eco fashion model, recommends Allan Schwarz as an intelligent optimist working to restore and conserve the forests of Africa and the dignity of the people who live there.
Summer Rayne Oakes | Jan/Feb 2010 issue
It began with an email in my inbox five years ago that simply said, “Do you really exist? If so, I’d like to tell you about my projects in Mozambique.” A peculiar way to start a prefatory note, I thought. But as I read on, the email became more akin to an old-fashioned missive. Its progenitor’s passionate language told of the work he had been doing for a decade in the heart of the Miombo forests of Mozambique. It was there, he said, that he set up the Mezimbite Forest Center, a sustainable development enterprise to help restore and conserve the forests of Africa and the dignity of the people who live there. I now saw the lineaments of a dedicated man emerging from the dust-ridden, pitted roads in the rear view mirror of my mind. The letter was affectionately signed, “Kind regards from the mosquitoes, Allan Schwarz.”
Allan Schwarz, South African by birth, is highly decorated in his professional career as an architect. He’s worked on projects ranging from Harumi Island in Tokyo Bay to the Built Environment Initiative for the Aga Khan Foundation to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique to South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan. His knowledge and skill set are both vast and deeply vertical, with interdisciplinary roles as architect, designer, artist, tropical forest ecologist, sustainable development consultant and social entrepreneur, all of which won him a fellowship with the prestigious organization for social entrepreneurs, Ashoka, in 2000. In the 1990s, he taught at MIT, where he forged his pioneering vision by creating a course entitled “Design with Nature.” His academic pursuits, however, were too, shall I say, academic, so he decided to move back to the African continent and put his teaching practices to work.
He founded the Mezimbite Forest Center in 1994 just after the civil war ended in Mozambique, and took inventory of his surroundings. The area was already heavily deforested, having been consumed by war and slash-and-burn tactics for firewood and charcoal. The rate of deforestation has increased in recent times—some half a million acres (220,000 hectares) are lost each year—particularly through illegal and clandestine logging by countries like China. Allan concludes that poverty is at the root of forest destruction, so we must not only work to restore indigenous forests, but incentivize the people living on the land to protect them.
His programs accomplish this by creating the highest value products or services possible with forest resources, while giving back more than what is taken from the land. It is at Mezimbite where he makes high-end furniture, homeware and jewelry from sustainably harvested noble hardwoods, parts for musical instruments such as oboes, organic personal care products from wild-harvested oils, and carbon poverty relief/offset programs for individuals, non-profits and companies.
Allan’s programs are unique in the sense that they, like him, are interdisciplinary in nature. Though the Mezimbite Forest Center is his base of operations, he works on reforestation, education and sustainable development projects in communities throughout Mozambique and Africa. Beyond his designs, which are sold at Linhardt Design Gallery in New York and Environment Furniture worldwide under the a.d. schwarz label, Allan is crafting a legacy of African artisans, trained to be masters of their trade with respect for their surroundings. (Organic luxury personal care products will be available in the U.S. in 2011. For more information, visit allanschwarz.com or adschwarz.com.)
In five years working alongside Allan, I found that his work has resonated with people throughout the world, and always in the most random situations. In L.A., I asked a Zimbabwean cab driver who talked of biodiesel revolutions and sustainable development if he knew of Allan. The driver pumped on the brakes and swiveled his head around so fast I thought it’d spin right off his neck. “Now there,” he said with a stern glow, “is a man with integrity.”
And seven months ago over dinner, my modeling agent introduced me to her best friend David, a fellow South African who imports and exports goods from his home country. Again I mentioned Allan’s name and David nearly spit out his wine. “Are you kidding me?” he remarked. “Why, I founded my business because of an idea Allan had!” And recently, I got a call from a friend from the Bay Area working on REDD [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries] programs in Cameroon. “Summer,” he began, “one of the folks I’m working with in Cameroon seems to remember a gentleman decades ago who was planting trees in that country. A man by the name of Schwarz. Is this the gentleman you work with?”
Knowing what I know about Allan now, sharing in his story, makes me reflect on that initial note sitting so neatly in my inbox five years ago. How curious it is. If I had never opened it or wrote it off as farcical, I would have never experienced all the work he has put in, the million trees he has helped plant, the schools he has helped build, the designs he has developed, the lives he has affected. Perhaps I should have sent an email to him: “Do you, Allan Schwarz, really exist? Because if you do, we need more men and women like you.”