From endangered to everyday tree? How governance makes a difference

Harvesting Prunus africana bark on Mount Cameroon. (Credit: Verina Ingram)
Harvesting Prunus africana bark on Mount Cameroon. (Credit: Verina Ingram)

A pidgin phrase from northwest Cameroon—‘Chop, no broke pot’ (Eat, but don’t overdo it)—is, essentially, a call for sustainable consumption. The saying also highlights the tensions in governing desirable forest resources in that country. An example is Prunus africana, a tree native the mountains of central Africa used by local people for fuelwood, carving, and medicines. Its main use, however, is to generate cash. For more than 50 years, its bark has been sold internationally, the source of an active ingredient used worldwide in prescription medicines and herbal remedies for prostate problems. A key species in the generally fragile and highly degraded patches of Afromontane forest, the tree has increasingly been cultivated on farms and in plantations as people realized its cash value.

As one of the most regulated forest products in Cameroon and Central Africa, this international value chain has been on development, forestry and agriculture policy agendas for years. Why? The tree is classified as a “vulnerable” species by IUCN; fears of unsustainable international trade in Prunus africana resulted in its listing under theConvention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1995. The 2007 European Union suspension of trade precipitated a crisis that led to a participative review of the tree’s status and governance arrangements, resulting in guidance for a national management plan that takes some account of statutory, customary and project-based governance.

Acknowledging that there is more to governance than ‘government’ is important, as the trees and farms and forests in which they are found are governed not just by formal regulations. The impact of the multiple governance arrangements on the sustainability of Prunus africana-based products, and ultimately the chain, has been mixed but generally negative.

Customary regulations in and around Cameroon are non-existent in the Francophone regions but strong in the Anglophone montane areas, preceding the regulatory framework. They still operate today—to such an extent that harvesting was suspended in 2014 in one region because the local rulers do not agree on exploitation and benefit-sharing.

Local rules have frequently been overrun, however, by large development and conservation projects. Since community-based companies and community forests emerged in the mid-1990s, they have used, adapted, collaborated with, occasionally subjugated, and often challenged traditional and regulatory authority. This has further alienated and disabled customary institutions as the value of volume of exports increased.

Working collectively, harvesters have tried to have tried to influence prices and regulations, but have had little power, the industry being dominated by a single exporter and four pharmaceutical companies. A result is that opportunities for harvesters to add value beyond harvesting in Cameroon since 2000 have not been accepted by the exporters. Community collective action, promoted by statutory and project-based arrangements, has been directly responsible for illegal and unsustainable harvests and has largely failed to control access or over-extraction. Community-based institutions defied institutional design principles and were insufficiently powerful to exclude others. Statutory systems, meanwhile, allowed multiple resource users in one geographical space, with no sanctions, monitoring or conflict resolution arenas. However, actors’ collaborations with research, development and conservation organizations have led to policies and institutions that have shifted the focus on product and livelihood sustainability.

Enforcement of regulations in Cameroon however has been arbitrary, sometimes exacerbating over-exploitation. This promoted short-term economic wins above a sustainable, long-term product and value chain. Statutory arrangements have been ineffective in countering pressures to harvest unsustainably, culminating in a trade suspension and prompting a profound rethink of governance arrangements. In contrast, project-stimulated collective action has supported planting, leading to a hitherto unrecognised amount of Prunus africana being cultivated. However, because they are unquantified, cultivated trees have remained invisible and no distinction made between the product’s wild and farmed origins in trade. Regulations, conventions and project-based arrangements, however, are based upon a presumption of wild sourcing and the species’ threatened status.

The current global market for Prunus africana appears to be slowly recovering, as Cameroon gradually increases supplies. This combined with competition from natural and synthetic substitutes makes the chain sensitive to any disruptions in supply. Only since the 2007 trade suspension have exporters and their pharmaceutical clients started to work with local landowners to invest in cultivation and secure supply. The government has finally begun to inventory the number of planted trees. The latest inventories indicate that in many areas there are at least as many planted trees as in natural forests.

Farmers are now waiting to register their trees so that they can sell the bark on international markets. Private property tends to be harvested sustainably. This classic tragedy of the commons illustrates the difficulties of governing common property with multiple regimes. Short-term economic benefits have been gained at the cost of the sustainability of the natural capital they are based on.

Written by: Verina Ingram
Affiliation: Center for International Forestry Research and Wageningen UR
Country: Africa/Netherlands

This post is entry #27 in the #IUFRO2014 Blog Competition. The most popular entry will receive a certificate and 500 USD. The second and third most popular entries will receive a certificate and copy of the new book, “Forests and Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Development”.

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