Africa's Non-Timber Forest Economy

By Chege, Nancy | World Watch, July-August 1994 | Go to article overview

Africa's Non-Timber Forest Economy


Chege, Nancy, World Watch


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. …

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