Sunday, October 25, 2009

The value of wood and the role of women in reforestation

(Kenyan women being checked for their wood-collecting permits near Kijabe.)

The striking thing about visiting an arid part of the globe is the lack of trees and the struggle of those people to find wood for cooking and heating. I have observed this first-hand in the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, and East Africa. Those of us who live in locations where there are abundant forests are incredibly fortunate, even though we seldom rely on wood for household uses. (My wife and I actually heat our home with wood, so I appreciate the value of this resource. However, if I don’t gather enough wood for the winter, we have the luxury of turning on the electric heat.)

The problem is really a “mass balance” problem. Wood is produced (i.e., trees grow) at a rate dependent on the species of tree, and the temperature and moisture of its environment. Opposing that growth rate is the rate at which wood is collected and used. The rate at which wood is used is greater than the rate at which new wood can grow in many places, especially in arid lands with a dense human population. Hardly a branch hits the ground that is not picked up by women who endure this arduous task. Benet women in eastern Uganda spend up to 10 hours per day, three days per week, gathering wood. That amounts to a full-time job, which is in addition to all the other tasks these women need to accomplish during the week. Can you just picture the soccer moms of the U.S. spending time in this manner? (Actually, the Benet left some mature trees, almost all Prunus africana, from the original forest when they cleared the land for agriculture. They do not use these trees for fuel.  Prunus africana, the African plum tree, has been used for thousands of years to treat various ailments, including problems of the prostate.)

Gathering wood in some places is downright dangerous. One Benet elder told us that he lost two wives during his youth while they were gathering wood for the home—one was killed by a neighboring tribe when she wandered into their territory. And, of course, there are large mammals and the scorching sun that can do harm as well.

So the answer is simple, but execution is nearly impossible. Grow more trees. But when Joe plants trees for the future, Sam cuts them down to use this year. In fact, Joe knows this will happen, so he doesn’t even bother to plant the trees in the first place. Or, no one can really afford the space for trees that will take years to grow large enough to use, given that trees shade areas that are needed to grow food for tomorrow. You can see a version of “tragedy of the commons” at work here. And so, the women continue to walk 30 hours per week to gather wood from some communal area miles away from home.

There are some successful attempts to turn this pitiful situation around. My colleague, Louise Buck, started a tree-planting program in Kenya about 20 years ago. The successful project was called the Agroforestry Extension Project (AEP), which mobilized women's groups and their members to develop small-scale nursery enterprises to propagate native and naturalized trees and to plant and to sell them. Over 1 million trees/year were planted in and around farms in western Kenya for over a decade, and the tradition continues. My friend, David Kuria, has mobilized a small cadre of volunteers (KENVO) near Mt. Kenya who maintains nurseries for native species of trees, and then plants them in concentric zones around a nearby national park. The idea is that those trees can be used eventually by local people, thereby reducing pressure on forests in the national park. At present, women can collect dead wood in the park after being issued a wood-collecting permit. Even this tree planting at the perimeter of the park, however, will not help women who live miles from this reforestation zone.

But the fact is that it is possible to produce wood where there was little before. It takes agreement within the local community that growing trees in a communal woodland is a worthwhile goal, some protection of young trees until they reach harvestable size, and a little money. The Benet women were waiting on a small grant ($100) to buy the seedlings to begin planting when my ecoagriculture group visited them, an amount about equal to what I spend on scotch in a given month. A little money can do a lot (microcredit?), if you can get it to the women. Women are the movers and shakers in most of these cultures. Women see the value of the plan immediately, and they are willing to do the work if given the resources to succeed.  In these societies, it seems it is always the women who actually make plans work.

One of the advantages of traveling around the world is the appreciation you gain for commodities we Americans take for granted. After living in Costa Rica, for example, I have never looked at a cup of coffee or a banana in the same way again, because I learned how much sweat-equity was used to produce those items. Similarly, I have always loved the trees in my forest and the firewood they produce to heat my home, but after some time in East Africa, my respect for that resource ratcheted up another notch. People only need a little help from the outside, and they can nurture a culture of trees that can provide an essential resource for their livelihood, reduce carbon dioxide, and contribute to conservation of biodiversity. It might just be that what is good for some locally is good for all globally.


  1. Thanks for another educational and interesting
    post about places I'll never see or visit.