Pencils for Africa

Mez Mag Editor’s Note

In the previous article it was noted that conservationists were becoming concerned about the impact of pencil manufacture upon forest conservation. An analysis of this forest impact had been conducted by I asked one of our contributing editors, palaeoecologist Dr. Elinor Breman, if she could give us a summary perspective on the forest conservation issue.

Pencils and Trees by Elinor Breman

A single tree can make casings for somewhere between 172,000 and 300,000 pencils. With more than 14 billion pencils produced annually, that’s a total of 41-87000 trees per year to meet our pencil demands – a demand that is growing year on year .

While small in comparison to the number of trees used for other purposes (e.g. paper production), this is not an insignificant amount. When choosing wood for pencil production sustainable management is an important consideration, and a number of certification schemes exist – for example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FCS).

Three different types of tree make up the majority of pencil casings: Incense Cedar; Basswood; and Jelutlong, requiring selective harvesting. Pencil production in countries such as China, India and Indonesia is increasing, leading to concern over the miss use of tropical forest hardwoods (Jelutlong), and greater environmental costs of production (such as transportation, higher emissions and biodiversity loss).


Elinor has a D.Phil. from The School of Geography & Environment, Oxford University.

Her thesis examined the drivers of vegetation change at the present-day grassland-savanna ecotone in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa. Mpumalanga province borders Swaziland as well as the Gaza Province, northeast of Mozambique and the Maputo Province, east of Mozambique. Elinor has worked in tropical rainforest ecology in Costa Rica, restoration ecology in Madagascar, and run environmental expeditions to Nicaragua.

Elinor responded to a JOQ interview on palaeoecology with Mez Mag just over one month ago.


Pencils for Mezimbite Forest, Mozambique by Allan Schwarz

I have an idea – send all your unused pencils to me at Mezimbite and I will make sure that they find there way into a creative child’s hand. Weight for weight, dollar for dollar I have no doubt that they will have far more effect than any other program that you can dream up, because pencil and paper is how dreams are best expressed.

Pencils for Chandwe Village, Zambia by Suzanne Joyal

Dear Allan,

This has been happening for five years, I am happy to report. Funny, it is the first thing I decided would be needed, before I had even visited the Chandwe in Zambia back in 2009.

I bring a spare suitcase full of a whole range of wonderful art supplies as well as plain old #2′s.

Maybe it is a result of my artist and educator background? It just went without saying that everyone would need more pencils. Every year now, I solicit donations of gently-used school supplies from my friends, and also ask my boys to do this at home. On top of that, I have a great relationship with my local art store. RileyStreet starts saving pretty much everything that is even slightly unsaleable in art supplies for me months in advance: I bring a spare suitcasefull of a whole range of wonderful art supplies as well as plain old #2′s. Paper is almost equally valued and in very short supply, especially the good stuff RileyStreet donates.

I was able to leave a lot of materials to supplement the Teen Eco Art Program this time: the kids were thrilled to know that they would be able to actually keep their drawings.
Allan, I’m sure you know just how beautifully those with no formal education, but a very open heart and mind can create? Well, here (below) is a photo I took of a gifted middle schooler at Ntoto Basic School in Zambia on my visit there in 2009.
This was the very first year I worked with kids in a very large classroom: over 100 children squeezed in to a classroom meant for 40 to create art through pencil drawings and painting.
And Allan – I am an equally reluctant user of the laptop.
In fact, many years ago when I started my art studio Purple Crayon in San Francisco, my selfish agenda was to teach parents to turn off the screens and teach their kids how to get their hands dirty. This was a challenge, as it made grown-ups struggle to find their own creativity in order to encourage it in their children.
Below are the Chandwe Village Celebrations: women from our first Micro Lending Center, Chandwe #1, drawing with pencils as part of our celebration.
And on a minor tangent, the first thing my grandmother ever taught me to make, was a kite out of newspapers! She lived on a farm in a very rural area of Maine (the same place the Sprouls and the Bakers have been for nearly 300 years), and we were always kicked outdoors to create our own fun. Kids in Marin, at least, never get that luxury.
Of course, I will always take donated pencils back to Zambia, if this becomes a “thing”. A pencil will take a person much further than a laptop can in a place with dirt floors and no electricity, locks, or even doors.
Allan, I will leave you with this pencil drawing (below) by a woman from Chandwe Village.
And I hope you will show me some pencil drawings from the Mezimbite Forest Centre in Mozambique, after you gather used pencils and implement your community pencil program!
Warm regards,
Suzanne Joyal,

Written by , Editor-in-Chief Mezimbite Magazine