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Trees outside forests: Namibia

H.O. Kojwang and M. Chakanga
Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Forest Service, Windhoek


Namibia covers an area of some 825 000 km2. The population, estimated at 1.7 million people, of whom 68 percent live in rural areas, is growing at an annual rate of three percent. Urban populations, fed by rural-to-urban migration, are growing faster than rural populations at an annual five percent compared to two percent in rural areas. In northern Namibia, where both human and tree populations are highest, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism carried out a major forest cover mapping exercise in 1996 on some 28 430 000 ha. The study found9 that 6.4 percent of the area was under extensive, subsistence cropping on woodlands and savannah; 0.3 percent was intensively cropped; 54.3 percent was open grassland and 26 percent was woodland. The remaining, treeless, 13 percent was comprised of open water, grasslands and valley bottoms (MET, 1996).

Namibia is a semi-arid country. The presence of Trees outside forests is due to a series of interactions, including the conversion of woodland into farmland, the food value of indigenous fruits, the need of a predominantly pastoralist society for forage and shade, and the introduction of processing plants for wild and domesticated fruit species. In this context an assessment of on-farm, non-forest trees is clearly needed to track tree production, evolution, and the potential contribution for natural resource conservation and enhanced food security.


For forest inventory and management purposes, Namibia defines as forest any woody formation with at least 15 percent tree cover and mean tree height of at least 4 m. The latter figure is justified by the considerable woody biomass potential of Namibia's substantial acacia and mopane woodlands for a potentially lucrative charcoal-making industry.

Trees outside forests are growing in heavily cultivated agricultural fields, villages and settlements, and in scattered formations in savannah and arid zones. These systems include trees left standing on woodland converted to farmland, on-farm woodlots, living fences, ornamental hedges, natural regeneration on farmland, scattered trees in the savannah, and isolated formations in the desert. The most intensive of these systems are found on heavily cultivated farmland, where trees play a major economic role.

Patterns and extent of change

The backdrop to the predominant agro pastoral systems of northern Namibia is a semi-arid environment characterized by low productivity, scarce credit and little infrastructure. One study (Erkkilä and Löfman, 1999) showed forest cover shrinking at an annual 0.5 percent as croplands expanded. Presumably, agricultural expansion and the concomitant deforestation will favour trees growing in non-forest areas. In the absence of an inventory of this resource, however, we can only assert with certitude that there are now fewer trees on farms than in woodland and bush savannah.

Some woody species do survive the expansion of the agricultural frontier. These include forage-producing Lonchocarpus nelsii, nut-producing Guibourtia coleosperma, plus Faidherbia albida and Acacia eriolob, which bear the highly nutritious indehiscent pods livestock find so irresistible. Scelerocarya birrea (marula), Berchemia discolor (bird plum), Strychnos spp, Diospyros mespiliformis and Hyphaene petersiana (makalani) are rarely cut down as people are very much aware of the value of their fruits and nuts.

Marula fruit is an excellent source of vitamins. The kernel is crushed to extract a stable cooking-oil rich in unsaturated fatty acids. Marula oil is currently being promoted in the UK for pharmaceutical and cosmetic purposes. Marula juice is exported to South Africa to produce an alcoholic beverage. Other fruits also gain in value when processed, such as bird plum, which is dried and marketed, and manketti nut (Schinzophyton rauteneii) , which is crushed to obtain an edible oil or ground for porridge, particularly during periods of drought. Manketti oil is now being tested to assess its potential for industrial use. Makalani leaves are used to weave baskets for export (Ministry of Environment and Tourism, 1996).

The consumption of processed or unprocessed indigenous fruits and nuts, the pharmacopoeia, and the living fences to protect crops all illustrate the value of off-forest trees, as do fence posts, fuelwood and construction wood for housing and livestock shelters. The resource also has an important role to play in environmental protection. Trees such as Acacia erioloba, G. coleosperma and F. albida improve soil fertility by fixing nitrogen and recycling minerals.

Institutional and management aspects

The main national backing for Trees outside forests is found in the 1968 Forest Act and the 1998 New Draft Forest Bill, as well as the 1997 Nature Conservation Ordinance Amendment Act. These texts protect trees, wild flora and fauna, and their habitat. The forest rules forbid the destruction of trees and other woody vegetation, except as authorized or in the case of specific land use plans. The proposed draft forest law stipulates that no one can plant more than 5 ha of woodlots on farmland unless the new trees are fruit trees. Customary law also includes sanctions against the cutting of fruit trees.

The new forest legislation and policies acknowledge the collective ownership of forests and woodlands. This encourages good management by local communities, who are perfectly aware that usufruct is contingent upon how well they manage their tree resources. A further incentive is that rural people are heavily dependant for their livelihood on a natural resource base increasingly degraded by deforestation, overgrazing, and the lack of rain.

The potential of trees to protect ecosystems, alleviate poverty, enhance food security, and generate and diversify income has mobilized a number of institutions around a common vision of the economic benefits of specific tree species. These include: the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, whose mandate comprises forests, nature conservation and the environment; the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development; and the ministries responsible for the advancement of women and decentralization. Even agricultural policy with its traditional focus on crops and livestock now has chapters on indigenous fruits and other wood and non-wood products.

The promotion of off-forest resources is gaining ground with concrete efforts such as living fences to protect harvests, extension campaigns to encourage farm forestry, and research on indigenous fruit tree breeding, improvement and domestication. Community forestry projects to prepare action plans for tree resource management are increasingly on the agenda. The Forest Service and the Ministry of Agriculture are jointly implementing a community forest management project in the Outapi district. They have also set up a working group for marketing value-added indigenous fruits and nuts throughout the country.

Research at the regional level is increasingly targeted at the domestication of indigenous fruit species. Genetic trials are being run on marula by SADC member countries (Southern African Development Community). A project is now in preparation to ensure follow-up for the ICRAF (International Centre for Agroforestry Research) trials in Malawi.

At the local level, farmers follow customary rules and standards for the use of trees on communal land, and have direct control over the trees on their own farms. Rural people are very conscious of the myriad uses of the various tree species. When new fields are prepared, trees that supply fruit, nuts and medicinal products, and trees that enhance soil fertility and provide shade, are not felled. Farmers leave most young or mature fruit trees such as Diospyros, Grewia, Ziziphus and Schinzophyton standing in the fields, tend the trees and protect their seeds, watering, thinning or singling and cutting as needed at the different stages of growth. Crops and trees compete for good arable land, however, so there are not too many trees.

Traditional management systems for trees growing outside forests are gaining broader recognition. A 1999 report presented 19 case studies on peasant farmer tree management skills, practices and techniques in north central Namibia. Projects look at ways to capitalize on local skills and traditional practices, and to ensure their continuity, now and in the future. The Community Level Forest Management project, the Community Forestry Extension Project, and the Centre for Research Information and Action for Development in Africa have all worked on traditional management systems.

Assessment and planning

The objective of the Forest Service's inventory was to ensure the availability of adequate forest resource information for strategic planning and operational management. The inventory was based on stratified sampling according to plant cover density at a sampling rate of 0.10 - 1 percent of land area. Data were gathered on trees, shrubs, grasses and herbs. The target was not only to gather data, but also to establish a mechanism for monitoring wood resources in northern Namibia, using these same sample plots in combination with remote sensing. The Forest Service has the institutional and staffing capability to do this, drawing on its own staff and that of the National Remote Sensing Centre. Fire-scars have already been mapped.

In addition to the NFI, which covered areas of low tree density, two inventories were done on trees growing outside forests, one on makalani and the other on manketti. These assessments had the financial backing of cooperation agencies with programmes to improve living conditions in rural households. One pilot community forestry project designed an assessment system that deserves to be tested in a variety of contexts for cost appraisal and practicality. We need to remember, also, that inventories are expensive. Large-scale inventories of off-forest resources are prohibitive unless there is a very good economic reason to conduct one. With this in mind, the forest service devised an assessment system for marula, given the export and marketing potential of marula oil. Other than these special cases, however, no assessment methodology per se has been developed for off-forest resources, and there is no systematic, detailed, national documentation on the subject. Some pilot forestry projects and community natural resource management projects do offer data on nut yields and foliage volumes, however.

The forest service should develop simple but analytical methods to gather data on on-farm trees. These would serve to support local priorities and make the most of local knowledge. During the manketti survey, for example, people from the !Kung group proved to have excellent visual assessment skills. Such capacities, which illustrate the potential for using local skills in tree identification and assessment efforts, could be harnessed for reconnaissance surveys.

Inventory of on-farm single trees and woodlots

The pilot community forestry project in northern Namibia assessed off-forest trees in the community of Ontanda. The objective was to gather data to allow community design of an integrated forest management plan. The assessment had two components: single trees and woodlots. The field work was led by a group of farmers. Their participation was essential to create a climate of confidence, stimulate interest, facilitate communication (especially once the results were in), and gather data on local lore concerning tree species and their products. Training the work-team, which involved teaching them how to take measurements, took one week.

On-farm single tree inventory. All single trees on farms and/or in fields were enumerated by species. The systematic sampling covered mature and immature, and male and female trees. The owner of the holding or his or her representative reported on local names and how trees were used and managed. The co-ordinates of the holder and holding, including farm size, were recorded along with the number of specimens of each tree species, specifying maturity and sex, utilizations and management practices. The biomass volume was calculated using standard height and diameter measurements. The sampling rate was 3.2 percent.

An average of 20 mature single trees was found on farms, mostly multi-use species with predominance of marula. All trees grown or left standing for fodder also provide shade, and 26 percent are grown solely for this purpose.

Trees giving fruit, feed or medicinal products are held in high esteem by farm households. Some products from these scattered trees also provide a modest income. They could, if better managed, make a significant contribution to household income, especially for women.

On-farm woodland inventory. Two circular sample plots were subjectively marked out to enable a reasonable representation of wooded land. An average holding was found to have some 9 trees/ha with diameters greater than 5 cm. These trees averaged out as follows: diameter = 11.4 cm; height = 4.8 m; volume = 0.434 m3/ha with a mean annual increment of 0.0143 m3/ha.

Annual consumption of wood for construction on an Ontanda farm is estimated at 3.5 m3/yr. This is eight times the total tree resources on the average farm for trees over 5 cm in diameter. The annual increment of forest resources on an average farm of 0.014 m3 covers only four percent of the annual wood consumption for that farm.

These figures show that standard methods could be adapted for application to Trees outside forests, particularly single or scattered trees. The margin of sampling error should be reduced, however. Conventional inventory variables are of less significance for off-forest trees than other variables such as the amount and quality of the fruit harvest, the kinds of medicinal products obtained and the sex of the tree.


Namibia, faced with problems of food insecurity and poverty, proposes two major development orientations: new markets for wood and non-wood forest products, and natural resource protection. Community management programmes for Trees outside forests are gaining in importance, particularly for the ecologically and economically promising indigenous fruit-tree species.

The assessment of this tree resource is constrained by a number of factors such as the scattered distribution of trees and settlements, the high cost of sampling, and limited access to privately owned lands. The economic, ecological, social and cultural benefits of these tree resources deserve and demand greater attention on the part of policy makers. Meticulous assessments of available natural resources and a careful look at their potential for sustainable use would do much to bolster policies to promote food security and diversify rural income.


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9 The criteria chosen for forest classification were: tree height over 5 m, and crown cover over 15 percent.

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