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Africa's non-timber forest economy.

The poorest continent doesn't have to liquidate its principal remaining asset in order to survive.

In the global struggle over the future of forests, the debate is often framed as a tug-of-war between those who want to cut trees for timber and those who want to preserve the forests as undisturbed ecosystems. But for large parts of the developing world, neither of those options can be entirely satisfactory--or realistic. Unrestricted timbering will sooner or later prove ecologically catastrophic, while leaving vast areas untouched fails to address the economic desperation of burgeoning human populations.

A third alternative is one that allows people to make a living from forests without massive commercial cutting of trees--an economic substitute for timbering that doesn't exact the same environmental cost. Forests can be abundant producers of non-timber products, both for trade and for subsistence. Global markets now exist for scores of such products, from Brazil nuts to baskets. And these markets, combined with other sustainable uses, amount to a surprising economic potential.

A study of eight villages in Ghana, for example, found that the percentage of households earning income from sales of non-timber products ranged from 49 percent in one village to 87 percent in another. In Cameroon, a government study of households in a forest area found that subsistence gathering, fishing, trapping, and hunting contributed more than half of local incomes. It also found that the overall economic value of sustainable forest use in the area was 25 times the value that could be accrued from continued short-term exploitation.

Worldwide, several hundred million people have become dependent on sustainable forest economies--either by extracting non-timber products for sale or by taking food, fuel, and other supplies directly from their surroundings. Many live in the well-publicized rainforests of South America and Southeast Asia, but millions of others--receiving far less attention from the international community and media--make their homes in the forests of sub-Saharan Africa. Straddling the equator, these forests reach from the shores of Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa through the low-lying interior of Congo and Zaire to the mountains of the Rift Valley. They cover a total of 1.7 million square kilometers in 14 countries.

According to archaeological evidence, the Pygmies have inhabited this region for almost 40,000 years as hunter-gatherers. Until some 2,000 to 4,000 years ago, they relied entirely on their environs for subsistence. Then, over the last few centuries, they developed a trading relationship with nearby agriculturalists. The farmers gave the Pygmies crops, pottery, and tools in exchange for bushmeat, medicines, and other indigenous products.

The Pygmies now number about 200,000, but constitute only a small portion of those dependent on the region's forest for their subsistence. A 1983 study found that more than 1,500 species of wild plants--fruits, nuts, seeds, roots, teas, herbs, and vegetables--are included in the Central and West African diets. Some of them, such as the seeds of the Ricinodendron africanum plant, are rich sources of protein. As the continent's population grows and becomes increasingly vulnerable to droughts or other causes of food shortage, these indigenous resources can be essential to survival.

At least 60 percent of the rural dwellers in West and Central Africa construct and furnish their homes using forest materials other than commercially cut timber. Many use saplings of the Coula edulis tree, which is durable and insect-resistant, as construction poles for the frames of houses. Leaves of the raffia palm are folded into tiles for roofs. Within the house, mattresses, brooms, and sponges are all fashioned from local plants.

Health care, too, is largely a forest-based service. More than three-fourths of the Central-West African people rely on traditional healing systems using medicines derived from native plants. In parts of Sierra Leone, for example, villagers treat diarrhea by ingesting the roots of the starchy Maranta arundinacea plant and the leaves of Ocimum gratissimum. Although very little has been published about the effectiveness of such remedies, several recent studies have suggested that at least some of these traditional treatments may have substantial value--and commercial potential. In a clinical test of people suffering from guinea worm infection in Nigeria, for example, 43 of 44 patients were successfully cured by a medicine made from Combretum mucronatum roots.

Despite their demonstrated capability to support a sustainable economy, the great Central African forests have become increasingly vulnerable to quick money-making enterprises--of which the commercial timber industry has been the most destructive. Although these forests include numerous tree species, commercial loggers target only a few large, straight-trunked old-growth trees, which comprise only 7 percent of the timber available. The "high-grading" of a small volume of the best specimens results in the harvesting of only 12 to 13 cubic meters of timber per hectare, which is only one-third as much as in Southeast Asia. As a result, much more forest is destroyed to extract an equivalent amount of timber.

There is an irony here, since selective cutting is generally seen by ecologists as a much-preferred alternative to clearcutting. But in Africa, such selectivity hastens the invasion of fortune-seekers, as roads are thrust across the forest floor to accommodate the transportation of widely spaced trees. According to professors J. Arnaud and G. Sournia of the Abidjan University in Ivory Coast, for every 10 square kilometers of forest "mined" by the loggers, 10 kilometers of road are built. As the roads rip open the forest, immigrant farmers who are unfamiliar with the forest soil quickly follow the loggers and clear the land for cultivation. But the soil exhausts rapidly, the land is abandoned, and the farmers move on to "new" soil.

As a result of these incursions, natural ecosystems are rapidly disappearing. During the 1980s, the forests of West Africa experienced an annual loss of 7200 square kilometers--or more than 4 percent per year. By 1985, 72 percent of the original West African forest had disappeared, and the losses are continuing today. Although 70 percent of the destruction has resulted from burning and clearing by migrant farmers, it has usually been logging that opens the way; more than 90 percent of the areas destroyed were first opened up by timber companies.

Although logging is a quick source of revenue, its benefits are only short-term. The timber is harvested inefficiently and unsustainably, with prodigious waste. At present rates of decimation, one of Africa's greatest natural resources will have disappeared by the mid-21st century, and the governments of 16 nations will have lost a critically needed long term source of revenue. Tens of millions of their once self-sufficient citizens will have been forced to migrate to urban areas in search of livelihoods that may not exist; the squatter settlements surrounding large cities are ready testimony to that. Poverty and hunger--already at catastrophic levels in many places--will probably worsen.

Clearly, this region is racked by a conflict of interest that can no longer be ignored. On one hand, the millions of rural dwellers who have developed a sustainable forest-based economy, whether through subsistence or through trade, need to have the forests standing. On the other hand, financially stressed government agencies, responding to the demands of rapid urbanization and industrialization, find it hard to resist the cutting of trees for the quick revenue it brings. Like a starving child, whose body consumes its own flesh to survive, the forested countries consume their own capital. Yet, if these governments are to assume responsibility for both urban and rural needs, both present and future, it is essential to establish policies that encourage only those kinds of utilization of forests that can last beyond the next few difficult years.

Nancy Chege is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. Her article "Cooking Up a More Efficient Stove" appeared in The November/December 1993 issue.

Brushtailed porcupine Atherorus africanus provides a highly valued meat.

Roots of Senegal lilac Lonchocarpus sericeus, from coastal savanna woodlands, are widely used as an insecticide.

Root bark of Cabbage palm Anthocleista nobilis, found in West African secondary forests, provides a pharmacologically proven remedy for diabetes.

Cola nuts Cola nitida, from a lowland evergreen, act as a stimulant to the nervous system, to counteract fatigue or depression.

Root bark of Quassia Africana, a year-round flowering shrub of the lowland rainforest, provides a traditional medicine for bronchial pneumonia.

Other Non-Timber Products From Central African Forests

Animals hunted or gathered for meat include the grasscutter Thyronomus swinderianus, tree hyrax Dendrohyrax arboreus, grey duiker Sylvicapra grimmia, bushbuck Tragelophus scriptus, bushpig Potamochoerus porcus, spot-nosed monkey Cercopithecus ascenius, and various snails, lizards, snakes, turtles, termites, caterpillars, and squirrels.

Some 1,500 species of wild plants are collected for their edible nuts, seeds, leaves, fruits, roots, tubers, and fungi. About 60 species are used as substitutes for salt.

Equipment for hunting and fishing includes dugout canoes from the tree Triplochiton scleroxylon, fish traps from rattan and rapphia palms, fish poison from the fruit of Lagenaria breviflorus, and poisoned arrow tips from Stychnos icaja.

Ropes and twines are fabricated from more than 40 species of fiber plants; toolhandles from 12 species of tree branches; oil pressers from the wood of the Pterocarpus soyauxii; furniture from Khaya anthotheca; bowls and mortars from Alstonia congensis.

Sponges are made from the stems of Momordica auqustisepala; sandpaper from the leaves of Chlorophora excelsa; cushions from the seed floss of Funtumia elastica; and woven baskets from cane.

Root bark of Quassia Africana, a year-round flowering shrub of the lowland rainforest, provides a traditional medicine for bronchial pneumonia.
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Author:Chege, Nancy
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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