Money Grows on Trees – Cameroon

July 2004

An estimated 240 million people living on the poverty line depend upon forests for a livelihood. However, in Cameroon over half the forest cover has been lost and 81 per cent of the country’s unprotected forest has been allocated to large multinational logging companies. Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as essences, oils, nuts, fruits and resins play a vital role in sustaining the lives of local gatherers, who must increasingly adapt to diminishing resources to stay alive. Research and training by organisations such as CIFOR (Centre for International Forestry Research) is encouraging local communities to play an active role in forest management, thereby safeguarding NTFPs for the poor and bringing benefits to indigenous lives.

Courtesy of Dr Terry Sunderland
Courtesy of Dr Terry Sunderland

Logging has become so dominant that it is often perceived as the only means to survival in Cameroon’s rainforest. Yet forests are also a key source of traditional products used for food, medicine, and construction. A wide variety of such products can be harvested without destroying the forest, and these NTFPs serve more than an economic value. Logging has diminished their capacity to sustain local livelihoods, but research and policy initiatives have been established to aid local community participation in alleviating poverty in the forests.


Why are Cameroon’s Rainforests Important?

The planet’s rainforests provide a range of ecological, economic and social services to humans, including the protection of water and soil resources and the storage of carbon in biomass. Through timber, mineral, and energy extraction, forests provide natural capital for local and national economies. Cameroon ranks among the world’s top five tropical log exporters; the logging industry is a mainstay of the national economy. Combined with the economic significance of timber, NTFPs such as food and medicinal plants are a major contributor to the modern economy.

There are often clashes of interest as pressure for forest resources grows. Local communities in Cameroon usually have usufruct rights (the rights to the produce of the land), while the government owns the trees, petroleum, minerals and other fossil resources. With the state managing natural resources, it often ignores the interests of local communities. With oil reserves depleting, the state is turning its attention to its forests, which are expected to be increasingly threatened.

Forests Under Siege

Cameroon’s forests have undergone extensive conversion, with half the historic forest cover (cover that existed prior to extensive human disturbance) cleared for farms and settlements. At least 20 per cent of the remaining forests are degraded or secondary forests. Agricultural clearing and logging are the primary causes of deforestation and degradation. Logging has significant environmental and economic consequences at both the local and national level.

Logging in Cameroon
Generating 28 per cent of all non-petroleum export revenues and directly employing over 34,000 people, the logging industry is vital to Cameroon’s economy.

Cameroon’s forests are a major source of the world’s tropical timber, with 1.7 million cubic metres of wood exported in 1997.

In 2000, foreign companies, primarily French, held over half of the active registered forestry concessions, and indirectly controlled other holdings through subcontracting practices.

New logging roads open up remaining low-access forests to bushmeat hunters, burning, agricultural clearing and vegetation removal.

With the expansion of logging activities throughout Cameroon’s forests, bushmeat hunting poses an increasing threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function.

The combination of agro-industrial ventures in Cameroon’s forests has exposed them to environmental degradation and deforestation.

Degradation presents a significant, yet unquantified, threat to Cameroon’s forests. Selective logging, fire, and over-hunting are all major causes of degradation and are difficult to detect through satellite imagery, the common means of measurement. Logging is currently opening up the last remaining tracts of large, intact primary forests in the country, which make up less than 10 per cent of forest cover.
Deforestation: Cameroon has the second highest annual deforestation rate in the Congo Basin, after the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the FAO, the period from 1980 to 1995 saw deforestation rates average at 0.6 per cent a year, representing a loss of almost a tenth of the forest cover that was present in 1980.

Non-Timber Forest Products

The accelerating pressure upon Cameroon’s forests reserves not only has widespread ecological impacts, it also severely disrupts the nature of indigenous local communities and their day-to-day existence. Deforestation and degradation reduce the availability and quality of the forest products which play a vital role in sustaining local lives. These products are used as medicines, food, tools and building materials within local villages and households.

It is difficult to quantify the economic importance of NTFPs due to a lack of data and the non-marketed nature of most such products. However, research by CIFOR indicates that NTFPs are an important source of cash revenue for Cameroon’s forest-dependent peoples. Nine products, including mango, palm nuts, cola nuts, and the African pear, generated US$1.9 million revenue in the first half of 1996. Trade in NTFPs is an important source of income for women. Women constitute the majority of the rural poor in Cameroon, are often denied land ownership and are not guaranteed access to forest resources.

Courtesy of Dr Terry Sunderland
Courtesy of Dr Terry Sunderland

The most profitable NTFP is considered to be bushmeat, with a high economic value. Bushmeat hunting, however, perpetuates forest degradation and is unsustainable at existing levels. It is this issue of sustainability that makes the use of NTFPs a diverse and complex matter that requires further understanding. For them to be used profitably now and in the future, NTFPs must be used in line with local ecological, economic and socially sustainable practices.


Poverty Alleviation

Forest-based poverty alleviation provides two strategies for mitigating the effects of poverty. First, forests provide a vital safety-net function, helping rural dwellers to avoid poverty, and enabling those who are poor to mitigate their plight. Second, forests have untapped potential to actually lift some rural people out of poverty. These characteristics are virtually unknown due to the lack of recorded data on such survival strategies.

Forests aid significantly as an employer of last resort for economically marginalised and forest dependent people. In contrast to timber, NTFPs have little or no capital requirements and tend to be available in open-access settings. The poor use various types of forest products and so are able to spread the risk among different activities. NTFPs exist as a source of emergency sustenance in times of extreme hardship. They also tend to be seasonal and perform a gap-filling function.

However, many of the NTFP species grow only in the wild and are under stress as logging activities and forest conversion threaten their habitat. Trees that produce NTFPs are also being directly logged. In 1998, over half the log exports came from five tree species that also generate NTFPs. For the poor to continue gaining benefit from the use of NTFPs requires a determined effort to conserve those trees.

Community, Conservation and Poverty Alleviation

In maintaining the prevalence of NTFPs, a number of research initiatives are under way. These emphasise the importance of community involvement in conservation, and suggest the need for improved management systems. This would reconcile improvement in livelihoods with forest conservation.

Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI)
A primary concern of BGCI has been to provide a means for botanic gardens in all parts of the globe to share information and news about their activities, programmes and any new advances that benefit conservation and education. Networking and capacity building for botanic gardens has been assisted through BGCI’s magazines and the publication of a series of resource books, manuals and policy handbooks. These focus on the development of botanic gardens and their roles on subjects such as conservation, environmental education, and education for sustainability.

The contributions of organisations such as CIFOR and BGCI have helped markets for NTFPs to expand throughout Cameroon. Local communities have been encouraged to make use of the resources in a sustainable and profitable way. Limbe Botanic Garden (LBG) acts as a centre for education in science and conservation, and recognises that the local community need to be informed of research findings and be involved actively in the implementation of their recommendations.

CIFOR: Forests Products and People (FPP)
To contribute to poverty alleviation, food security and environmental protection through improved management, use, processing and trade of non-timber forest products. NTFPs are identified and effectively targeted by donors, development agencies and government interventions. The subsistence and safety-net values of NTFPs to poor, forest-dependent communities are recognised and protected in development strategies.

To assess the extent to which NTFP production, use, processing and marketing contribute to human welfare. The primary beneficiaries of the programme are the poor, forest-dependent people who derive an important part of their livelihood through the collection, production, processing and/or trade of NTFPs.

LBG’s Conservation Through Cultivation initiative encourages the public to facilitate conservation and protect their livelihoods by cultivating NTFPs such as eru. Cultivation decreases pressure on the wild species, thereby reducing the risk of over-exploitation.

Eru and its Healing Qualities
Two varieties of eru occur in Cameroon, the Gnetum africanum and Gnetum buchholzianum. Eru is native to West and Central Africa. In Cameroon, it is also known as kok. Recognition of eru’s importance in Cameroon spreads daily. Its protein content is high and the plant can greatly reduce malnutrition in areas where meat is scarce.

Eru has medicinal qualities. It can be used in the treatment of an enlarged spleen, sore throat and nausea. It can also be used as an antidote to poison, especially arrow poison common with local tribes such as the Banyangs. The stem is taken as tisane to ease childbirth.

The economic value of eru has rocketed recently. Trade in the vegetable has become highly profitable both on the domestic and the international market. For example, 90-100 tonnes of eru are exported to Nigeria every week.

Limbe Botanic Garden has been interested in the conservation of the eru plant. Eru’s economic value has placed the plant under ecological threat. There is no tradition in Cameroon for the plant to be cultivated, which means that any eru removed from its habitat is not replaced. Moreover, because the plant grows up the trunks of larger trees, the harvester usually stands on the ground and pulls the vines down. More than half the leaves remain at the top of the tree, so the remainder of the vine is killed and wasted.

Courtesy of Dr Terry Sunderland
Courtesy of Dr Terry Sunderland

LBG educates local communities on the cultivation of eru. This involves the identification of appropriate cultivation methods and the encouragement of local farmers to grow the plant. LBG has also published the ‘Eru Manual’, which outlines the potential benefits from cultivating the plant and how it can be most efficiently used in a sustainable way.



From the Forest to the Market

In sustainable forestry, good marketing creates effective linkage between resource managers, processors, and the market. For forest-dependent NTFP producers, high transport costs, a fragile resource base, limited infrastructure and little experience in a market economy increase the importance of good marketing information, as well as the difficulty in obtaining it. NTFP producers therefore need training in marketing skills, which organisations such as BGCI and CIFOR are able to provide.

In the Bimbia-Bonadikombo forest area, Rose Teke has practised in situ cultivation of eru, but never kept any records of what she harvests or how much income it generates. With the training she received from a workshop at LBG, she was able to document her cultivation and finances. This allowed for an improvement in quantity and an increase in income.

Zozelle Mbilong is the leader of a women’s group in Cameroon, which has transformed a farm that they own into an efficient plantation. By gaining access to specialist traders in eru, the group’s members are able to save enough money for their children’s education and medical expenses.

To ensure the success of eru harvesters, Rainforest Alliance, in the TREES (Training Research Extension Education Systems) programme, identifies ways of facilitating entry to the market

Future Scope of NTFPs

Poverty alleviation can be facilitated where education and training initiatives exist between organisations such as CIFOR, BGCI and TREES and the local communities harvesting NTFPs. Local communities are not always aware of the economic value of NTFPs. By quantifying this value for local user groups (e.g. comparing the value with that of timber) it becomes clear to them that large-scale timber production is not the only means of economic survival in the forests.

Knowing the value of NTFPs, combined with effective production and marketing training, allows local communities to make full use of their environment without destroying their future resource base. Knowing the value of the forest products leads to other benefits for the community. Once aware that efficient use of NTFPs is more profitable than a one-off sale of timber, they are empowered against the economic might of logging companies.

In order to strengthen the position of the local community, it is necessary to appreciate that they do not form a homogeneous group, but consist of various different interest groups. In strengthening their position with respect to outsiders, it is important to focus not only on the interests of local elites, but on the needs of all community members.


ITDG would like to thank the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Dr Terry Sunderland of theAfrican Rattan Research Projectfor providing information and helping in this case study.

The case study draws on articles by Global Forest Watch, the Centre for International Forestry Research and Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

TVE/ITDG gratefully acknowledge support for Hands On programmes from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Further Information


De Beer, J.H. and McDermott, M.J. (1996). The Economic Value of Non-timber Forest Products in Southeast Asia. Amsterdam: Netherlands Committee for IUCN.

Sunderlin, W.D., Anglesen, A. and Wunder, S. (2003). ‘Forests and poverty alleviation’, in FAO [Ed.] State of the World’s Forests. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organisation. Pp. 61-73.

Taylor, D.A. (1996). Income Generation from Non-wood Forest Products in Upland Conservation. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Van Bodegom, A.J. (2000) ‘Natural forest management by local groups in the humid tropics’. Theme Studies Series 2: Forests, Forestry and Biological Diversity Support Group. Wageningen, Netherlands: International Agricultural Centre.

Van Rijsoort, J. (2000). ‘Non-timber forest products (NTFPs): Their role in sustainable forest management in the tropics’. Theme Studies Series 1: Forests, Forestry and Biological Diversity Support Group. Wageningen, Netherlands: International Agricultural Centre.

Useful Organisations

Botanic Gardens Conservation International

Centre for International Forestry Research

European Forest Institute

Food and Agriculture Organisation

Global Forest Watch Cameroon

Rainforest Action Network

Rainforest Alliance

World Resources Institute (WRI)


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