FAO in Ghana

Ghanaian communities come together to protect local tree species

A woman carries a bowl with water on her head in front of an old Baobab tree, Upper East Region, Ghana ©FAO/Luis Tato

Traditional leaders, Queen mothers and community members partner with local organization to develop community by-laws to safeguard local natural resources and fight landscape degradation

In sub-Saharan Africa, over 70 per cent of the population depends on forests and woodlands for their livelihoods. In addition to the economic importance of local natural resources, certain forest products, such as shea, baobab, tamarind and parkia, also play an essential role in people’s customs and culture.

In Ghana, local communities have mobilized efforts under the guidance of the Organization for Indigenous Initiatives and Sustainability (ORGIIS) to protect these resources from degradation in five northern regions. 

Baobab and shea for livelihoods and traditions

In northern Ghana, smallholder farmers cultivate a wide array of products to feed their communities and to protect local traditions. Shea trees, for instance, are used in healing and spiritual practices, during funeral rites, in medicine and in traditional dishes. Similarly, the baobab is known as a spiritual tree for most of the tribes in the North. It is believed that the location of a new baobab tree is a reincarnation of the ancestors of the community, reminding them that someone settled in that place in the past. 

Non-timber forest products in the Ghanaian savannah landscape also play an important role in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, as they are women-led value chains. The dry pulp of the baobab fruit, for example, is converted into powder and used by women in various households for drinks, soups or sauces, while the kernel of the seed is processed into an oil, and the waste product of the fruit serves as livestock feed and fuel. 

The richness of the Ghanaian landscape has seen an increase in commercial agriculture over the last decades, as well as widespread bushfires and deforestation. Both external settlers and internal community members, most of which are men, have been increasingly engaged with the production of charcoal and the clearing of lands to plant commercial crops. This has been contributing to land degradation and puts local species such as shea, baobab, tamarind and parkia at risk, as well as local traditional rites, biodiversity, and several women’s livelihoods. Gender-related conflicts have also been observed as a consequence of the competing use of these resources. Despite the economic, social and cultural value of natural resources in the region, there are no strong legal frameworks in place to protect them, and most resources are found outside government-protected areas.

Community engagement and buy-in: crucial to mobilize change

Communities’ right to land in the northern regions of Ghana is frequently verbally defined and not documented, which means traditional chiefs are often unable to legally protect local tree species from internal conflicts of interest as well as external settlers and commercial farmers. Although the Ghanaian Constitution offers the possibility for communities to formulate regulations and submit them as legal instruments in their favour, most groups lack the coordination, resources, capacities and awareness to do so. Furthermore, most national policies recognize the monetary value of local natural resources, but not their cultural and spiritual weight.

ORGIIS, supported by the Forest and Farm Facility, mobilized community chiefs, councils and Queen mothers to discuss strategies and solutions to address this issue and resolve land tenure-related conflict. “The essence of this initiative was to secure the support of traditional councils of the houses of chiefs in the five regions towards the development of legally binding by-laws for protection of resources of commercial value, gender relevance, environmental and cultural values,” said Julius Awaregye, ORGIIS Executive Director.

An essential component of the initiative consisted in building the capacity of community leaders to recognize their roles and rights as defenders of their communities’ local species. By gaining a unified understanding of their positions, traditional chiefs are now better placed to advocate for their tribes’ land tenure rights and to engage in higher-level decision-making processes regarding the responsible use of local species. The discussion also allowed chiefs and Queen mothers to gain a broader perspective on land degradation beyond their own individual groups.

In addition, about 230 participants, including community leaders, were trained on how to draft by-laws. By-laws are community-level regulations which hold the potential to be adopted at the national level. Indeed, the Regional House of Chiefs has already received multiple by-law proposals to be submitted for consideration at the national level. The by-laws, once passed at the community and later at the national level, will help to protect landscape resources, while safeguarding the interests of women producer groups.

During the validation of the report for the drafting of the by-laws, Naa Dikomwine Domalae, Daffiama Naa, President of the Upper West regional house of chiefs stated that “the community chieftaincy has changed significantly in the past 200 years. Currently, there are legal instruments governing the chieftaincy’s institution. This has motivated the implementation of by-laws in our traditional areas to protect customary relevant trees such as shea, baobab, tamrindus, parkia and dawadawa.

Moving forward as one

Although communities in northern Ghana still have a long way to go in getting their by-laws approved at the national level and influencing the Ghanaian Constitution, a solid platform has been established for groups to advocate for their tenure rights as a unified body. Community leaders are now better committed to protecting their resources, and ORGIIS expects that, through the introduction of the by-laws, chiefs will strengthen their authority in the management of resources and protection of productive landscapes. In the long run, the local communities hope to replicate their efforts across the region and serve as inspiration for international standards of natural resources management as well as the protection of smallholders’ livelihoods and rights.