Recognizing the riches of the forest
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CTA. 1995. Recognizing the riches of the forest. Spore 59. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Non-wood products from forests represent an important, though underestimated, part of the economy of many developing countries. For hundreds of millions of people forests are a vital source of food, medicine, raw materials and income, and for...
Non-wood products from forests represent an important, though underestimated, part of the economy of many developing countries. For hundreds of millions of people forests are a vital source of food, medicine, raw materials and income, and for generations many communities in Africa have known how to make the best use of these products. One way of ensuring protection of tropical forests is for forest people themselves to manage these sources of livelihood and income. In recent years tropical forests have been in the news primarily because of widespread felling and clearance, declining production of timber, the resultant damage to the environment notably the reduction in the ozone layer and the effects of the 'green house gases'. Just as important, though less well recognized, is that as tropical forests are cleared many other products also disappear. This very diversified environment is the home of thousands of plant and animal species which have adapted to take full advantage of this habitat. As John Ryan, a World-watch Institute research worker based in the USA, said 'Since most of the forests' resources are used in the forests themselves or sold locally, they are largely ignored by forestry officials and economists who are only interested in products which can provide income when they are exported.' In equatorial forests hunting is still an important activity based on traditional techniques. Although there is now very little large-scale hunting by communities, villagers still use netting to catch small antelopes, crossbows with poisoned arrows to kill monkeys and large birds, and smoke out burrows to catch large rodents such as the Gambian rat. According to Igor de Garine, a researcher with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), 'Most food of animal origin still comes from the forest; most wild animals and birds are caught by trapping.' Animals caught by snares or break-back traps set round plantations, and fish caught in rivers, provide plenty of animal protein and fat. In addition, children collect agate snails, termites and the caterpillars of several species of moth from the family Attacidae during the rainy season. Hunting and gathering - in Equatorial Africa's forests To supplement the game meat, thin yam stalks, ripe fruits, mushrooms and liana leaves are also gathered from the forest, often by women and girls. The pulp of some fruit is much sought after for its high protein content. The large annona cauliflower (Anonidium mannii), for example, contains 12% of protein in the dry matter. The fruit, which weighs over 5 kg, is often eaten where it is found while the people are travelling or hunting. The protein content of the leaves of liana and bushes such as Koko (Gnetum africanum) is even higher (up to 30% of the dry matter). They can substitute for meat when there is none available and they are the main ingredients of many dishes with sauces. The wild mango (Irvingia gabonensis), Baillonella toxipermea seeds and Antricaryon and Panda fruit are also picked or gathered for their kernels, which provide flavour for sauces and are high in fat and protein. The kernels of Antrocaryon fruit are crushed and added to meat stew as a condiment. In addition to the animals and birds, plants and fruit and, of course, bees and their honey, equatorial forests provide all the materials required for making baskets, cooking utensils, musical instruments, weapons, implements for hunting and fishing, furniture, clothes, adornments and games. Also, 80% of people who live here depend on plants for treating their ailments. Most of them know of no other medicines apart from those obtained from the forests. For most people living in the forest areas though, apart from wood, these products are not sufficient to cover all their needs and so crop-growing and the gathering of produce from forests very often go together. Fruit and vegetables from the savannah In contrast to the majestic trees of the equatorial forests, the baobabs, climbs, ficus, tamarinds and jujubes, which are thorny, bushy, stunted trees found in the extensive savannah are often dismissed as being worthless. Yet for the inhabitants of the savannah these trees provide enough food to cover difficult periods and the dry years, and extra nourishment when there is plenty of rain. The fruit of the baobab tree, and the 'nere' are especially high in vitamins, while ficus leaves and jujube seeds are high in protein and 'nere' and baobab seeds have very high energy contents. These are only some of the trees which provide food. 'Using the knowledge of the many uses of plants in the environment passed down over many generations, the inhabitants can find many plants which between them will provide food to cover all seasons of the year', explains Anne Bergret, a CNRS researcher. She also points out that 'The protein content of the leguminous species in the tropics ranges from 4-10% of their fresh weight compared with 1-2'/o for European legumes'. This is an especially important contribution in a region where there are few sources of protein. Many fruits and seeds ripen during the difficult period before the main harvest, while others complement millet and sorghum. They ripen at different times and enable women to produce tasty and nutritious sauces throughout the year. Moreover, apart from periods of severe drought, the trees still bear fruit in spite of the unpredictable rainfall, thus providing families with the certainty of a supply of food. 'For women such food reserves are the equivalent of a granary full of corn for men. Every woman has her store of leaves and fruit kept out of sight of the men', says Anne Bergeret. 'Women draw on their stores carefully to alternate fresh food with what they have stored.' As in Equatorial Africa, for rural people in the Sahel wood is only one product of many which are obtained from trees and they are amazed at the idea of having plantations grown solely for energy. As many different products are obtained from trees, 'Why do you want to put all trees of one species together?' forest dwellers ask when seeing one of these plantations for the first time. But now, trees in the Sahel are the object of conflict between urban and rural people. Trees growing on villagers' land are only perceived as wood and are cut down and turned into charcoal to supply towns with fuel. Jesse Ribot, of the Energy Group at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that, 'Trees are threatened with extinction; they are endangered and decimated; there is no certainty that they will be replaced; the tree cycle is being disrupted'. The national authorities are having little success in their efforts to stem the demand for charcoal by towns and to reduce the destruction of trees in the bush. Fortunately there are some exceptions, and trees such as the shea are especially well protected. 'If you are seen with a branch from a shea tree on your head or in your hut, you will be fined so heavily that it will take you more than a year to pay the fine', said a forestry worker from Mali. The Water and Forestry Commission is particularly concerned since it takes forty years for a shea tree to reach maximum production. Riches mean income The value of exports of honey produced from bees in the forests of Tanzania is several times greater than the value of the wood in these forests. In Ghana many women earn income by selling Marantaceae leaves, collected in the forest, to shopkeepers for wrapping food. In the Central African Republic traders sell over 700 tonnes of meat of forest animals and birds annually. In Zaire, Ghana, Nigeria and Botswana wild fauna (bush meat) can provide up to 70% of the protein; and in Jamaica chicle and pepper exports bring in millions of dollars a year. There are no accurate statistics relating to income obtained by selling non-wood products. Although so many rural people gather, process and sell these products they do so without keeping any accounts and it is impossible to check the gathering or disposal of products. This is an unofficial sector and an almost virgin area for research into production and marketing. However, businessmen in Europe and America are beginning to realize that forests contain much more than wood and that they could realize an annual turnover of billions of dollars. Cosmetics and essential oils are an example of some of the high value products based on non-wood forest raw materials. John Ryan of the Worldwatch Institute believes that this is a tricky problem. 'The sale of forest products may be a means of improving the welfare of the inhabitants of the forest, provided that the basic political obstacles encountered are resolved. What types of market are required? By concentrating on exports without taking steps to support the local markets and home consumption, those who are supposed to benefit could ultimately be harmed.' Unpredictable, unappreciated, threatened trees Shea trees grow in the Sahel by the thousand in a strip about 500 km wide from east Senegal to the south of Chad. Mali produces between 60,000 and 80,000 tonnes of kernels in a good year. Shea butter is a beauty product par excellence for African women and is an essential ingredient in cooking. Countries in the Northern Hemisphere also want it for their pharmaceutical laboratories, cosmetic factories and for confectionery. Furthermore, dealers make profits from it and the State benefits from taxes on exports. An official journal estimates that 'In Burkina Faso shea contributes 12 to 15% of the income from exports for the national economy and an average of three billion CFA francs are paid out to the rural people every year.' Whether it is exported or used for home consumption, shea is a valuable resource which is little exploited. All those who are interested in the product agree that about 50% of shea seeds produced rot in the bush. Gum arabic is another product that has a special place in the history of the economy of Senegal. In the 16th century the first merchants to operate on the West coast of Africa were exporting gum from Senegal and Mauritania to Europe. At the end of the 19th century 20'1, of the exports from Senegal, Mauritania and Mali consisted of gum. From January to July life in St Louis in Senegal revolved around the gum trade. All gum produced in the north of the country was moved by river. In 1970 exports amounted to about 60,000 tonnes, a figure which has fallen considerably owing to a succession of droughts (See Spore 25). Tropical forests, whether equatorial or in the Sahel, are all under threat. As a result, the lives of millions of people - including some of the poorest - are also threatened. Many agree that the best way of saving the forests is by associating these peoples with its management. John Ryan considers that 'A movement to protect the forests which starts from the local peoples has more opportunity of maintaining the necessary flexibility. Any action from outside which attempts to restrict the use of the forests against the will of those living there is doomed to failure, as may be seen from the deterioration of the many national parks in the tropics. If the forests are to remain ecologically stable, it is essential that the requirements of the inhabitants be respected.' The beginning of a solution to the problem appears to have been made in Latin America, where reservations open to exploitation are managed by local communities. Forest reservations belong to the State; the Water and Forest Departments establish regulations for their management as these are technical matters but the rural people gather the produce as they have always done. Since they profit from the assets of their forests, it is in their interest to preserve them (see Spore 37) 'But the domestication of wild species poses serious problems', warns Fernando Allegretti, an agronomist of the Brazilian Institute for Amazon Studies at Curitiba. Thus, when gum trees died as a result of droughts, in 1981 the Senegal Forestry Development Master Plan made provisions for planting 100,000 hectares of gum during the next 35 years. At that time there was a good demand for gum from the developed countries and forestry officers believed that the gum tree was 'domesticated' easily. Several projects were implemented through afforestation by villagers, the regeneration of natural stands and plantation programmes. However, although livestock and crop farmers learnt from their ancestors how to look after, prune and tap trees, research still has not found out which varieties are the most productive and there has been insufficient time for researchers to breed improved gum trees profitable enough to justify the cost of a plantation. Nevertheless, extensive programmes can be implemented to assist the natural regeneration of trees with the assistance of local people. The yield of the unpredictable shea tree varies from year to year from excellent to very poor but it is not known why. A forestry officer in Mali said 'We do not yet understand this tree. We have conducted improvement trials and tried propagation by taking cuttings and grafting but our work is not yet finished'. As the yield varies so considerably, no conclusion has vet been reached on the economics of growing shea trees. The problem is the same in equatorial forests where there are interesting species which could improve the supply of food. Research is taking place at present with Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii (Menispermaceae) tubers which could be grown as a crop but there are some aspects which are not understood. In view of competition from imported products which are beginning to take the place of traditional products, and the export of nutritious forest products which should be consumed in their countries of origin, these questions must now be faced.
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