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Eat the beetles? Rural people losing their taste for a crucial food source

Forest communities shift to western sources of protein - but at what cost?
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For Cameroon's rural poor, collecting the Augosoma centaurus beetle augments both diet and income.
For Cameroon’s rural poor, collecting the Augosoma centaurus beetle augments both diet and income.

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Cameroon - An abundant and sustainable source of protein and micronutrients crawls in the palms of villagers’ hands in East Cameroon.

They may be difficult to chew, but Augosoma centaurus beetles (one of many species of Rhinoceros beetles) are a crucial component of the food security and livelihoods of local people.

“Eating insects is part of preserving one’s identity when you are a son or grandson of the forest,” said Patrice Levang, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and co-author of “A Crispy Delicacy: Augosoma Beetle as an alternative source of protein in East Cameroon,” a recent study on Augosoma consumption in the area. 

Augosoma beetles are a traditional alternative to bushmeat and fish consumption in eastern Cameroon. Eaten in larval and adult stages, they provide much-needed micronutrients, protein, and income for the rural poor during the dry season. Their collection and consumption also serves as a natural form of pest control for local plantations of raffia palm, a crop that provides another key source of villagers’ livelihoods.

And yet, despite the prevalence of the crunchy cuisine, researchers note that taste for the delicacy seems to have soured.

TRADITION IN TRANSITION

“Local people here generally depend on the forest to satisfy their protein needs,” said Fogoh Muafor, research scientist with the Living Forest Trust and lead author of the study.

“But in very fragmented ecosystems, bushmeat and at times fish are rare, especially in the dry season. Forest insects like Augosoma are important protein alternatives that are valuable in such ecologically altered areas, especially when they are abundant.”

The study found that more than 90 percent of local tribes eat the insects when they are seasonally available. “I was surprised by the level at which the beetle is consumed in the region,” Muafor added.

Ecological alterations—such as new roads, logging concessions, or conversion of forest to agricultural land—in parts of Cameroon have decreased the availability of bushmeat for rural consumers. This is especially true in the eastern region,  the source of 57 percent of the country’s timber products. Additionally, of the 4.5 million tons of bushmeat extracted from the Congo Basin every year, much is traded in urban centers, not exclusively within the logging concessions where much of the meat is obtained.

Some of these alterations, however, have made the landscape more attractive—at least to the beetles.

It’s part of that drive for modernity - pfeople are looking for other sources of protein in food

Patrice Levang

Road lamps installed by logging companies attract Augosoma beetles after dark, making it possible for a single collector to fill a 5-liter bucket in one evening. In total, 77 percent of Augosoma beetles are gathered from these electrified spots, according to the study.

For the rural poor, collecting the beetle augments both diet and income. The gatherers can consume collected specimens directly or sell them for a good price in local markets. The protein and micronutrient composition of similar types of beetles  may indicate that Augosoma are also beneficial in the battle against hidden hunger, or micronutrient deficiency, which is estimated to affect more than 2 billion people worldwide.

The edible beetle also has cultural significance. According to the study, some ethnic groups in the region believe that consuming the adult Augosoma beetle fortifies children’s bones, enabling them to walk faster. Others believe that eating the adult beetles increases sexual stamina in men.

PUBLIC FAVOR FALTERING

Despite these real and perceived benefits—and recent scientific interest in the nutritional value of insect consumption—cultural and demographic shifts in eastern Cameroon have caused the popularity of the practice to gradually decline.

Muafor cited the recent proliferation of churches in the area that forbid the consumption of insects as one contributing factor.

“Certain churches that have gained ground in the east region have included insects and pigs in their list of forbidden animals. The faithful of this church therefore do not consume the Augosoma beetle because they believe it is unclean to the soul.”

This trend has taken place in other parts of Africa as well, according to the FAO 2014 Edible Insects report. Western Christian missionaries have, in some places, condemned insect consumption as a heathen practice.

Rural to urban migration might also be a factor. “As more and more people migrate to cities, of course they have more difficulty finding these insects, so this reduces the practice,” Levang said.

Both Muafor and Levang pointed to the adoption of Western eating habits as another contributing factor. “It’s part of that drive for modernity,” Levang added. “People are looking for other sources of protein in food.”

RAFFIA RAVAGERS

It is not only nutrition for the rural poor that will be in jeopardy if Augosoma consumption continues to decline. It could also prevent communities from using the most sustainable form of pest control they have for one of their most important crops—raffia.

The raffia palm, a critically important crop in East Cameroon, is also the preferred home of Augosoma beetle larvae. The larvae infest the stems of the raffia plant, eventually killing it if left to their own devices, the study explains.

Nearly a quarter of Augosoma collections are taken directly from infested raffia. Women listen for the best time to collect the larvae by pressing their ears against afflicted stems to listen for the nibbling sounds within.

Local people should be educated on the nutritional benefits and importance of consuming Augosoma

Fogoh Muafor

Raffia products have a wide variety of applications in Cameroon, providing building materials for furniture, roofing, and fencing. The plant’s fibers are used to make baskets and bags. Wine is also made from the sap for use in traditional ceremonies.

The tradition of collecting the beetles by hand and consuming them, a form of biological pest control, is a win-win option for these communities. It provides food and income to families and renders environmentally harmful and expensive pest-control methods, such as the use of chemicals, unnecessary.

If consumption of the beetles continues to decline, Muafor fears communities would face a lack of protein for those who cannot afford meat or fish, increased pressure on leftover wildlife populations, and a transition to economically less beneficial and environmentally unfriendly forms of pest control.

To reverse the trend, “local people should be educated on the nutritional benefits and importance of consuming Augosoma,” Muafor suggested.

Promoting such behavior changes through information dissemination is a challenge to researchers working with food security and nutrition in rural areas, but has shown promising results in some locations.

For more information about the topics of this research, please contact Fogoh Muafor at muafor1@yahoo.com or Patrice Levang at p.levang@cgiar.org.

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