Rio+20 Business Focus: Protecting a life saving tree in the heart of Africa

Politicians make the policy. But it’s often left to business to implement it. For this reason RioPlus Business is featuring submissions from the private sector across the globe in the lead up to Rio+20.

Today we look at how the conservation and sustainable use of Prunus Africana is improving the lives of small-scale farmers in Africa.

The African Cherry tree Prunus Africana has medicinal properties that have earned it a valued place in small-scale farming communities. Scientists at Bioversity International with partners are studying the conservation and sustainable use of this species in an effort to help rural communities improve livelihoods.

The African Cherry tree can play a crucial role in local economies is managed sustainably. (Source: Barbara Vinceti, Bioversity International)

The African Cherry tree is an evergreen tree species that grows in the mountains of sub-Saharan Africa, especially Kenya, Madagascar and Cameroon. Chemicals extracted from the bark of the tree are used in pharmaceutical products to treat enlarged prostate (benign prostatic hyperplasia), a common condition that affects up to half of men over the age of 50. This market demand provided an important source of income for small-holder farming communities, especially in Cameroon. In 2007 alone, its annual export trade was worth 1.3 million euro, with around 4000 tonnes of bark exported annually to Europe.

All of the traded bark has been harvested from wild trees. However, overharvesting of bark from wild trees led to a ban on international trade of the tree’s bark in 2007. Without the trade, many local communities struggle to earn any income, many of them living in harsh subsistence farming conditions. But in spite of the ban, some smallholder farmers have continued to plant seedlings and maintain the forests and the biodiversity contained within it, hoping the ban will be lifted and that community plans such as improved health and education facilities can be realized.

Mr. Peter, a Cameroon farmer who has been planting Prunus Africana trees for 18 years, said: “I do it because I love it. But of course, I hope harvesting can begin again soon so I can earn a decent income for my family.”

For the restrictions to be lifted, EU regulators needed evidence that sustainable harvesting techniques will be successfully adopted to avoid overharvesting in the future. Bioversity International and partners are helping to share information on how this tree can be harvested sustainably. Local farmers associations and extension workers know how to harvest the bark so that trees are not killed or significantly damaged. In addition, farmers in Cameroon have planted many African Cherry trees to eventually supplement or replace the dependence on wild harvest.

Barbara Vinceti - Bioversity International Chemicals extracted from the bark of the tree are used in pharmaceutical products to treat enlarged prostate, benign prostatic hyperplasia. (Source: Barbara Vinceti, Bioversity International)

With the objective of conserving the species for future benefits and improving livelihoods now, three CGIAR centres (CIFOR, ICRAF and Bioversity International) have conducted studies and developed guidelines for sustainable management and conservation of the species. The information produced by these centres has contributed to having the trade ban partially lifted, which allows exports to flow to Europe again, improving the livelihoods of small-scale farmers who depend on this tree as a source of income.

In addition, Bioversity international and partners have analysed genetic diversity throughout the species’ range to identify areas of highest conservation concern. The analyses showed that the highest genetic diversity both in genetic markers and bark chemistry was found in Kenya, Madagascar and Cameroon, showing that these areas need to be targeted as a high priority for conservation.

Scientists looked at how the distribution of suitable habitat for the species is likely to change with changing climate and found that the area that is predicted to be suitable for Prunus Africana by 2050, based on projected climate conditions, will be less than half of the area that is currently suitable for the species. The populations in Cameroon appear to be especially vulnerable, adding urgency to the need for conservation of their genetic resources.

Bioversity International uses agricultural biodiversity to improve people’s lives. We carry out global research to seek solutions for three key challenges: Sustainable Agriculture, Nutrition, Conservation.

Partners for this project included the Federal Research and Training Centre for Forests, Natural Hazards and Landscape, Vienna, Austria, and national partners from nine collaborating countries.

 


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