Seeing the Forest for More Than Trees


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The resurgence in herbal medicines has raised questions about the sustainability of harvesting certain plants, such as the black cohosh

The resurgence in herbal medicines has raised questions about the sustainability of harvesting certain plants, such as the black cohosh

By Angela Dewan

It’s easy to look at a table and forget it was once a tree. As the Korean poet Ko Un said in his speech on Monday, humans have become too far removed from forests, yet we are, in reality, still unconsciously very connected to the forest.

Understanding where your table comes from requires little stretch of the imagination, but when you consider how many non-timber forest products are consumed by even the most urban of city-dwellers, our dependency on the forest is obvious.

Edible products like mushrooms, seeds, nuts, fruits and berries are everyday items in all parts of the world, while certain plants find their way into many of our medicines.

What we may also fail to consider is how our demand for these products has contributed to unsustainable harvesting and land degradation.

Black cohosh, or Actaea racemosa, is a medicinal plant that has been used for thousands of years. It is cultivated straight from the wild in parts of the United States and Canada, mostly to go into medicines to treat menopausal symptoms and rheumatism.

The resurgence of herbal medicines in the last decade has driven high demand for the plant. In 2001, demand for black cohosh jumped 106 percent and is continuing to grow, raising questions about how intensive harvesting affects the forests they grow in.

James Chamberlain from the US Forest Service set out to measure the impact of black cohosh cultivation on the land.

His findings suggest that intense harvesting of black cohosh is unsustainable.

“Intense harvesting also significantly reduces canopy cover,” he said.

He questioned the idea of sustainable harvesting, saying many studies on the issue are incomplete.

“The whole paradigm of sustainable ecosystem management is flawed. If someone says something is sustainable, you have to ask, have the looked at the herabciouas layer? And how much do we know about what is going on underground at the root level?”

CIFOR's Verina Ingram looked at an endangered tree species in Cameroon and analysed the potential to grow more to sustain livelihoods

In Cameroon, lucrative forest products are also facing depletion.

The Prunus africana tree is endangered. It produces a cherry-like fruit, a unique white honey and charcoal, and is used in 30 percent of medicines to treat prostate problems. Cameroon was the world’s largest exporter of the tree’s products until 2007, following 15 years of intense harvesting.

Cameroon eventually suspended exports following an EU suspension on importing the tree, putting a dent in the cash incomes of many.

To reclaim incomes, harvesting the tree must be done sustainability. To achieve that, there may have to be a change in demand.

“International trade of a lucrative wild resource is inherently unsustainable,” said Varina Ingram from CIFOR in Cameroon.

Ingram found, through studying the tree species, data collection and household surveys, the best approach would be to develop a participatory national management plan to regrow Prunus africiana and aim to make it an everyday tree.

“This will help all actors with different interests engage with each other,” she said.

“Most harvesters don’t know this tree is endangered. They know nothing of the huge international trade. They just dry bits of bark and sell them to middle men.”

With an ageing population in many countries, the demand for this tree as a component of prostate medicine is only going to rise.

Ingram said decision-makers should consider this in its planning.

“Like other non-timber forest products, this trade is underappreciated and undervalued. Governments sometimes just see forests as timber,” she said.


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