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Trees, food production and the struggle against desertification

El Hadji Sène

El Hadji Sène is former Director of Forests of the Republic of Senegal and is at present the Coordinator of FAO's International Year of the Forest activities

El Hadji Sène makes a strong case here for the utilization of natural vegetation, including a great diversity of woody shrubs and trees, as a means of meeting basic food needs in many African countries. Native tree species, often exploited successfully for centuries, have been neglected, abandoned or destroyed, Sène says, even though they could play a major role today in relieving the crisis in many African countries as well as in assisting in the whole process of development.

TREE-ENCIRCLED SENEGALESE VILLAGE nourishment from local species

This means switching from bucolic amateurism to real food production, from small woods to the widespread and continuous presence of trees in the agricultural landscape of the area.

· In all the photographs attempting to convey the tragedy of the people of arid, drought-stricken Africa, there is a constant, almost permanent thread: whenever there is hunger, there is first ecological misery - lack of water, lack of trees, sometimes not even a sparse grass cover, but everywhere there is dust raised by a hot and dry wind. Arid Africa is naked, thirsty, hungry. Even more alarming, this parched land has in recent years stretched inexorably south. Poverty is now moving insidiously down to the once rich areas of the Sudano-Sahelian and Sudanian regions, the region of the trees.

In order to ensure a normal human existence, free from crises of hunger and in an environment with a minimum of stability, what can the forest and the trees provide in terms of food production and the fight against barren landscapes and desertification? It has always been recognized, albeit superficially, that forest and trees had an important role to play, and now this role is becoming increasingly evident. What seems less evident, however, is a real knowledge of the elements (species, wood or non-wood products, rural systems) capable of restoring this role and giving it a significance proportional to the magnitude of the present problem. Equally absent is a full awareness of the steps to be taken and of the appropriate programmes to be implemented in order to achieve this rehabilitation and increase the effective contribution of natural plant formations to solving the problems of hunger and desertification. This means switching from bucolic amateurism to real food production, from small woods to the widespread and continuous presence of trees in the agricultural landscape of the area.

Natural vegetation and food production: a wealth in decline

The variety and wealth of natural plant species found in forests, savannahs and fallows that can provide food are surprising. Especially remarkable is the fact that during almost any period of the year there is a species, a tree or a bush that can produce something to eat.

The author has always been struck by the interrelationship existing between staple food production (cereals) and the contribution of woody formations to the human diet. In the history of the Sahelian and Sudanian populations, some tree species have played a particularly important role as food during normal or critical periods, sometimes even on a par with cereals. Taking, for example, the western Sudano-Sahelian sector, from north to south, the best-known group includes the following:

· Boscia senegalensis

· Crateva religiosa

· Cordyla africana

· Icacina senegalensis (an inconspicuous shrub in the savannah but one that literally explodes in post-crop fallows)

· Borassus ethiopum

· Parkia biglobosa

· Parinari macrophylla

· Moringa pterygosperma (introduced, became subspontaneous)

· Ficus graphalocarpa

· Ficus spp.

Each of the species, treated appropriately, can provide either a primary course (with the same food value as cereal) or the basic component of a sauce or a substantial soup, thus helping to reduce the proportion of cereals used. This contribution is of particular importance when crops are merely average or downright poor. Many other tree species can play the same role.

A second group consists of species producing ingredients that, while not basic, are important to food (oil, spices, etc.) and that have, today as they did in the past, considerable value as an item of important regional or local trade:

· Gum-trees (acacias)

· Sterculiaceae (Sterculia gum and particularly Sterculia setigera)

· Oil-seeds (Balanites aegyptiaca, Vitellaria paradoxa or shea, oil-palms, etc.)

There are, finally, a stunning number of fruit-bearing trees. Looking merely at the Sudano-Sahelian area, one wonders why the world economy contents itself with such a skimpy list of fruits when, with limited investment, an infinite range of varieties could be grown. It is even more remarkable that, with most of these fruits, many different parts can be used, from the pulp to the seeds. Even within areas with an annual rainfall below 700 mm, there are dozens of noteworthy species of high potential.

Looking merely at the Sudano-Sahelian area, one wonders why the world economy contents itself with such a skimpy list of fruits.

An interesting fact is that, despite the drought, in many badly affected areas of the Sudano-Sahelian area with poor annual crops, the people and especially children enjoy satisfactory health conditions. The secret lies in the discreet but permanent role played by the range of foodstuffs produced by the savannah vegetation - isolated trees, shrubs and creepers. This contribution has represented an invaluable food buffer, which operates primarily during the critical periods: April, May and June. In terms of monetary economy, it allows for the circulation of cash in rural areas as well as the purchase of a number of commodities to supplement food supplies.

ONE TREE AT A TIME the results are worth the effort

But what is happening now? There is an ongoing rapid decline in this resource, which has not even had time to yield a minimum of its potential. This decline is due to several factors:

Social. Modern thinking tends to consider this kind of food out of, date. There is therefore widespread "social" obsolescence and technological loss. Very few people today are aware of the technology once applied to Boscia or to Icacina senegalensis.

Reduction of tree populations. Forest stands are not renewed. It is, for instance, no longer possible to assess the importance and the density Parkia biglobosa stands had in the 400 to 800-mm rainfall range in Senegal, where they formed closely knit stands. Traditional history and typonymy can both confirm this. Perhaps an idea of it can be gained by comparing situations in areas with a high human density (west-central Senegal, for instance) and northern Ghana, where a vicarious or analogous species, Parkia clappertoniana, can still be found at high densities in more recent clearings. The comparison is equally valid for Vitellaria paradoxa, which is gradually disappearing from the landscape near cities like Ouagadougou and which can also still be found in exceptionally high densities in northern Ghana (Tamale).

Some African plant species and their use

Type of product (uses)

Levels of use

Possible developments

Boscia senegalensis

fruit (pulp, seeds)


technological improvement

Balanites aegyptiaca

fruit (pulp, oil seeds)


technological improvement

Zizyphus mauritiaca

fruit (pulp, dry pulp)


fruit improvement

Icacina senegalensis

fruit (pulp, seeds)


technological improvement

Parinari macrophylla

fruit (pulp, dry pulp, seeds)


technological improvement

Parkia biglobosa

fruit (dry pulp, seeds)


technological improvement

Tamarindus indica

fruit (pulp, beverage, marmalade)


fruit improvement

Annona senegalensis



fruit improvement: high potential

Diospyros mesfiliformis



fruit improvement

Nauclea latifolia



fruit improvement

Cordyla africana

pulp (unripe/ripe)


technological improvement

Vitex spp.



fruit improvement: high potential

Spondias mombin



beverage industry

Competition of urban consumption. Town dwellers retain many of their rural habits, but eventually the nature of these habits changes. In fact, forest fruits or ingredients derived from the forest are no longer a necessary element of people's diets. They represent what could be called luxury consumption or "delicacies" for children or adults. Powerful economic and financial pressures also tend to upset the balance of the rural environment. Forest fruit harvesting and marketing become destructive elements and result in hasty picking, delimbing, gathering of unripe fruit, and so on.

Lack of a proper place for these resources in forest management and rural regulations. Most of the time, forest management has simply ignored this important use of natural vegetation; and, when it does take it into account, it is merely concerned with collecting taxes on the products that are marketed. No meaningful steps - stand protection, harvesting and marketing regulations, promotion of forest management - have yet been taken.

However, this lack of consideration of the effects of natural vegetation on food supplies is by no means final. A few steps made in the right direction would be restorative, but they should be supported over a long period of time by appropriate short-, medium- and long-term follow-up actions.

Woody formations and food production. As long as people are content with simply listing these "wild riches" and marvelling over them, the situation will continue to deteriorate. Their usefulness will gradually vanish, technologies will be forgotten and the significant buffer role once played by natural vegetation will disappear. In the author's opinion, with the help of a sound, well-designed and timely research-development package (implying social psychology, technology, biology/genetics and extension), Sudano-Sahelian Africa could today be supplying its famine-stricken areas with concentrates and bread - in short, with "food formulae", based on these resources (powder from Parkia, Adansonia, Boscia, the jujube, etc.) and as protein-rich as any product based on soya or other ingredients that are being channelled to the stricken areas.

In the author's opinion, each country of the region should give sustained attention to the resource and its unexplored potential.

Social-psychological aspects

From a psychological viewpoint, calling a product "secondary" reduces its potential. Foresters, be they from temperate, Sahelian or humid areas, have inevitably called secondary whatever came out of the forest - except, of course, the glamorous, flawless log. Despite its historical and human importance, an importance that no other wood has ever enjoyed or perhaps ever will enjoy in the Sahel, gum arabic has long been listed as "secondary" or included among "others" in the statistics drawn up by forest services in the region. The same applies to shea-butter and even more to all the other "miscellaneous" trees. A first step should therefore be the recognition by all administrations concerned of the value of these various products and the fact that they may be managed appropriately and form the subject of serious research. Above all, external institutions should be discouraged from playing a leading role, for the situation would then become permanent and probably worsen. The author witnessed, during the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations Congress in Kyoto (September 1981), with what chilly politeness verging on irritation the audience listened to a well-meaning speaker trying to demonstrate how Africa could be fed by means of its fruit-trees... clearly a matter of approach, culture and psychology: he failed!

TO BUILD A BETTER FUTURE Parkia plantation in the Sahel


GIVING A VALUABLE FRUIT IN JUNE/JULY Senegal's ntaba (Cola cordifolia)

A further step should be to raise the prestige of many local natural products and demonstrate how they can be used quite normally and not just by the poor, without the users being tainted by the gravest social stigma - appearing unable to produce or purchase their own food.

It is impossible to go into a detailed description here of all the local techniques used for such-and-such a product. However, in this context, an example can be given of one particular fruit species - Cordyla. In April or May, Cordyla produces unripe fruit which is harvested, peeled and boiled - or fried - and eaten like a potato. The fruit can also be dried and preserved and thus be of great help in critical periods in between crops (August - September). Mention this type of food technique to people and they will think you are crazy! A pity. But there are ways of breaking through these preconceived ideas. Nutritionists in Senegal and Mali, for example, have rehabilitated a large number of priceless recipes using such products.

Fighting hunger is like stopping wars. It is in people's minds that the work has to be done.

Foresters, be they from temperate, Sahelian or humid areas, have inevitably called secondary whatever came out of the forest - except, of course, the glamorous, flawless log.

Technological aspects

If direct utilization of fruits does not raise any technical problem, the same cannot be said of processing before consumption. Similarly, if the role of these directly or indirectly consumable products is to be significant in terms of providing a stable food source, problems of conservation, and hence of technology, must be accounted for. Traditional, sometimes even complex, technologies do exist - for instance the rather complicated processing of Boscia and Icacina seeds. Such technologies should be inventoried.

As far as the processing of forest fruits is concerned, interesting experiments are in progress and should be pursued. The Institut de technologie alimentaire of Dakar has already obtained noteworthy results on Detarium senegalensis, Tamarindus indica, Landolphia spp., etc. In Mali, the famous tamarind syrup has won a large number of devotees and shea-butter is already used in cosmetics.

But a more systematic approach needs to be adopted, starting with products that have a higher potential in fighting malnutrition, namely fruits that produce a thick pulp or meal or any other dense substance. These should be given definite priority over others: Parinari, Parkia, Icacina, etc.

Biology and genetics

Clearly, the preparatory work described so far would have little or no effect if what was picked were merely whatever was available. As far as the resource is concerned, it is essential to take action in several fields:

· Basic knowledge. Systematic inventories of plant species with an unexploited or underexploited food potential should be expanded, but at the country level and in a coordinated and exhaustive manner. This task is just as important as that for medicinal plants, and in the author's opinion, more advanced, whether it is carried out traditionally (Traoré in Mali) or more scientifically (Kerharo and Paresse in Dakar). The inventory should concentrate not only on the systematics of the species but on its biology and distribution and the health conditions of the stands as well.

· Protection of existing stands or isolated trees. Protecting isolated trees appears to be a more difficult task, but the inclusion of these trees, shrubs or creepers in the list of protected species could prove quite effective, especially where the rural populations understand what is being done and participate in what they see as a true revival.

· Protection of forest areas rich in forest species and the creation of enclaves or fruit-tree stands in reserved forests.

· Species multiplication through seeds, cuttings, layering and suckers, as well as selection and genetic improvement.

In the author's opinion, the potential is of such importance that extensive planning at the national level, combined with regional coordination, should be devoted to it. This is the price to be paid in order that the natural Sudano-Sahelian flora contribute to solving the problem of sub-Saharan hunger and improving the human diet.

ANIMAL PEN IN SENEGAL flaking livestock and forestry


Extension work should not be particularly difficult if it is based on groups of selected forest fruit species chosen according to the needs of the areas involved. Surveys conducted by community forestry projects have already shown that local populations often request these species, in particular Cordyla, Parinari, Jujube, shea and Diospyros. There are even cases where enterprising farmers have attempted on their own to regenerate species known for their regrowth difficulties, such as Cordyla africana in Senegal and shea in northern Ghana. These are isolated cases, but their existence illustrates the possibilities.

In extension work, imported but perfectly adapted exotic species should not be overlooked. The cashew tree, for example, which may be found very far north, can make an interesting contribution when treated as a domestic fruit-tree. Furthermore, when properly dried, figs could play an important nutrition role. The Spanish plum (Spondias purpurea) that grows almost everywhere and propagates so easily by cuttings should be planted in all courtyards and hedges. Extension services can disseminate such species widely.

Multiple use of woody vegetation in desert control

Woody vegetation can play a significant role only so far as it is adopted in everyday rural life and takes its place in the rural calendar. The neem tree gained importance from the moment the farmer proceeded spontaneously to top it, thus producing shade for two years between cuts, fuelwood and fence stakes after the cuts, and an item for the family pharmacopoeia!

To return to the multiple use of these indigenous species, it is therefore necessary for the forester, the agronomist and the rural extension agent to hasten the integration process which is in fact already under way. Nowadays, the agronomist talks of the importance of trees, and not necessarily fruit-trees, and the forester considers that wood may in certain cases be the least important product that can be extracted from forest trees. A dynamic consensus can be reached on what should be done for the farmer, pointing toward "vegetalization" or "revegetalization" rather than actual reforestation. This revegetalization will then utilize all growing usable plants. Even in areas below the 200-mm annual rainfall level, this can be achieved.

Experience has abundantly emphasized that whatever the rhetoric used in matters of forestry, planting and desert control, the prime concern (reflected also in people's first reaction) is water, food and the survival of livestock. It is here that the links will be found upon which to act in order to promote a silviculture, a natural plant resources management that is acceptable to the rural populations and stimulates their active participation.

Trees in inhabited areas

It must be recognized that the immediate surroundings of many small towns and villages of the Sudano-Sahelian area have grown richer in trees while the nearby bush and savannah areas have gradually lost theirs. This massive tree-growing effort in villages has not yet gone far enough north; it does not utilize a great variety of species; and, finally, the place of fruit-trees is very limited. Efforts should aim at achieving two specific goals:

1. Increasing the diversity of species to be planted, by repopularizing easily reproduced fruit species (Spondias purpurea) or fairly hardy ones such as cashew and mangoes, and by emphasizing the use of certain forest fruit species that may be promoted in their present form, especially when requested by the local population; these include jujube, tamarind (despite their reputation as slow-growing), Parinari, Parkia and Detarium. In this context, it is interesting to note that slow-growing species become remarkably fast-growing when raised domestically. In northern areas, planting obviously becomes increasingly difficult. However, the promotion of increasingly neglected species such as the baobab, Prosopis and local forest species (gum trees, Acacia tortilis) in between concessions should give good results. Many forestry services have, at one time or another, established minimum goals for fruit-tree production in their programmes. This trend should, in the author's opinion, be encouraged, and the traditional 20-30 percent growth rates should even be exceeded.

2. Increasing and promoting local initiatives aimed at setting up nurseries, plant production and village wood-lots (trees in public squares and lanes and along village roads).

Regeneration of the rural countryside

Natural vegetation in the Sudano-Sahelian areas has strong resilience. Despite harsh climatic conditions and the scourge of bush fires and fellings, a relatively short fallow period is sufficient for regrowth to start by self-germination, especially by shoots and suckers, the latter representing an effective resistance tool.

Community forestry projects have dealt in recent years with this regeneration; it is technically feasible. At the human level, it requires strong popular participation, sound land-use organization and consequent discipline in livestock management. If grazing in dry seasons is not kept under effective control, regrowth in the countryside will be impossible.


All these measures may help to restore an important function of forest species and of isolated bushes, trees and shrubs in food production, and at the same time help to preserve these species in situ and in the village environment. This can be done in the short term.

In the medium and long term, a more extensive research and development programme on forest fruit-trees should undoubtedly permit the vast food potential of African vegetation to be fully realized.

All development projects dealing with agriculture, livestock and water should include a "tree" component. They would thus achieve a double aim: immediate food production, and gradual ecological rehabilitation.

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