From forest harvest to bubbling businesses in the Congo Basin

There have been hunters and gatherers for as long as mankind can remember and members of many communities in the Congo Basin still extract their food, medicines, fuel and cultural artefacts directly from the forest. Should such long-established livelihoods be integrated into the modern economy?
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Non-timber forest products, mainly used for subsistence, could provide a business opportunity for communities in the Congo Basin. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR.

Non-timber forest products, mainly used for subsistence, could provide a business opportunity for communities in the Congo Basin. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR.

There have been hunters and gatherers for as long as mankind can remember and members of many communities in the Congo Basin still extract their food, medicines, fuel and cultural artefacts directly from the forest. Should such long-established livelihoods be integrated into the modern economy?

Abdon Awono, a Cameroon-based scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research, thinks so.

“Can we recognise that local communities need things like televisions and modern healthcare? My answer is yes,” said the co-author of Guide for small and medium enterprises in the sustainable non-timber forest product trade in Central Africa.

“If so, they need money. How can they get it? From their direct environment.”

Local communities in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo harvest most non-timber forest products (NTFPs) – rattan, fish, fuelwood, bushmeat and plants — for their own consumption, income generation and health care. CIFOR research has identified at least 570 plants and 110 animal species harvested from the wild in Cameroon alone.

NTFPs also provide some economic benefits for local communities. A 2010 study estimated the annual value of Cameroon’s main NTFPs at over US$1 billion per year. More than 350,000 people are employed in small businesses across Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to harvest the 15 most widely used NTFPs – more than twice the number of jobs in the formal forestry sector in both countries.

But the new CIFOR guide highlights a problem: About 90% of small and medium forest enterprises interviewed in these two countries operate without permits – so illegally.

This makes them easy targets for corrupt officials who, when offered a little cash, eagerly look the other way.

The average truck driver transporting Gnetum spp. leaves (known as eru or fumbwa in local language) from south-western Cameroon to the Nigerian border pays more than US$500 in bribes at 22 road blocks along the way.

Awono argues that recognised harvesting and trading licenses issued through a decentralised administration would lift the burden of corruption and channel taxes into the national budget – so long as such reforms are accompanied by programmes to “let the communities know exactly what the legislation is.”

In some cases, such evolution would require deep changes to existing laws.

“In Cameroon, forest legislation is being reviewed. It currently allows the harvesting of NTFPs only for local consumption,” he said.

“We recommend that trade of NTFPs by local communities is recognised in the new law to give local communities the chance to generate income legally and afford education, health services, clothing and other household goods they do not produce for improved livelihoods.”

However encouraging a legal trade of natural products might pose a new threat to receding Central African forests.

The authors of the CIFOR guide warn that the development of small forest businesses should go hand -in-hand with mechanisms that ensure “a sufficient supply of their product, not just for the next season, but also for the years ahead.”

These include identifying the least destructive harvesting techniques, and domesticating more of the wild species found in the forest, bringing them into farming systems.

“People have been managing those products – not necessarily sustainably, but they have techniques that are useful. However, often they are only known to specific communities,” said Awono.

“Further research into these issues and practical dissemination of the results is key.”

The guide also features a large section with practical advice to turn groups of Central African villagers into successful and sustainable small businesses. From wrapping cola nuts in leaves for better conservation, to basic marketing techniques and the restoration of confidence between banks and small entrepreneurs, there is ample room for partners in government, civil society and the private sector to help this new business sector emerge sustainably.

Take the story of Esther Foungong, who has been trading safou, a fruit in Makenene, Cameroon since she was 14. She has received guidance and market information from CIFOR since 2000 and now exports to Gabon.

“Despite my young age, I am taking care of my family,” she told researchers.

“I think I do better than many civil servants.”

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by the European Union.

This issue will be one of the topics of discussion at the two-day conference Sustainable forest management in Central Africa: Yesterday, today and tomorrow Yaounde, Cameroon. 22-23 May, 2013.

For CIFOR’s special feature on Central Africa’s forests, visit blog.cifor.org/yaounde

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