Planting to replace: helping local communities to conserve their forest resources

James Ewane Sumelong

Mount Cameroon Project, Limbe Botanic Garden, P. O. Box 437, South West Province, Cameroon

The Mount Cameroon Forest area: history

Hundreds of years ago, a group of Carthaginian travellers standing on the decks of sturdy ships off the coast of Man O'War Bay, saw a high mountain in eruption. They called it 'The Chariot of the Gods'. That was Mount Cameroon. If those explorers were to come back today, they would see a rich green mountain in the place of the red and yellow volcano, which had so fascinated them. From the sea up to an impressive altitude, the whole area is covered by one of the richest forests in Africa. In fact this mountain now stands as a great symbol for the whole of Cameroon. Historically it is very rich. Early German settlement here has left many remains; architectural, cultural and agricultural. Buea, which is situated on the slopes of the mountain was once the state capital of the Southern Cameroon and is still the headquarters of the South West Province today. One of the more conspicuous reminders of the historical relationship between Germany and Cameroon is the Limbe Botanic Garden.

Geography and ecology

In terms of geography and ecology, Mount Cameroon is a unique and interesting place, for several reasons:

Socio-cultural issues

Mount Cameroon is of great cultural significance to the indigenous people. The cultural heritage of the people lies in the richness of the soil and its forests. The forests and all that is in them are a symbol of the continuity of life for these people. Certain animals, like the currently-threatened forest elephant, are sacred to the people. The mountain and forests hide numerous shrines and sacred groves where important religious cites are performed.

This rich volcanic soil has not only made trees grow in the forest, it has attracted a lot of people who came to this area to farm. The existence in Fako Division of the largest agro-industry in the country (Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC)) is sufficient proof of this. There are also many large farms owned by individuals, especially on the northern slope of the mountain. This agricultural frenzy has been heightened by the economic crisis which prevails in the country at present.

Many people have either lost their jobs in cities or do not earn enough to keep them going. The tendency is to open up a farm. The forests around Mount Cameroon are considered an ideal place. People are also ready to do anything to get money and some of these things are environmentally harmful.

The situation is worsened by the fact that the people are not formally educated. Both categories of people living in this area—the indigenous people and the settlers—need a basic education on the environmental hazards that they live with everyday.

Environmental issues

The most pressing environmental issue for Mount Cameroon is the loss of its biodiversity. Two main causes have been noted; over-hunting and deforestation:

The Mount Cameroon Project

These activities by themselves send out a loud appeal for something to be done to save the collapsing ecological system on Mount Cameroon and its surrounding forests. The outcry has been heard by several interested bodies, such as the British Overseas Development Administration (ODA), the German Aid Agency (GTZ.) and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) of the World Bank. These bodies are collaborating with the Government of Cameroon to address this burning issue through the Mount Cameroon Project (MCP).

The Mount Cameroon Project, which has existed for two years, comprises four parts; administration, forestry management, community development, and the Limbe Botanic Garden.

The existence of the Mount Cameroon Project has widened the scope of Limbe Botanic Garden. It has created the opportunity to go beyond the Garden's walls and actually implement projects born of research carried out in the Garden. The aim of the Mount Cameroon Project is to maintain the biodiversity of Mount Cameroon, using a participatory approach, which benefits local communities two-fold, because in addition to having their forests maintained, they also acquire certain skills.

The example of Prunus africana: its distribution

Prunus africana (Hook f.) is a sub-Saharan African montane tree species which occurs from Côte d'Ivoire to Ethiopia and down to South Africa, including the islands of Madagascar, Grande Comore and Sao Tomé.

In Cameroon P. africana occurs in the montane forests of the Southwest, North West, Western and part of the Adamawa Provinces (near Banyo). In the Mount Cameroon area, this plant is called wotangu in the Bakweri language.

Prunus africana: description

Prunus africana is a tall tree, growing to a height of 30m, usually with a straight trunk. The leaf-type is simple, alternate, oval or lance-shaped. The fruits are spherical, two-lobed drupes (some are single) about 10 mm in diameter (about the size of a coffee grain) and intensely bitter. The wood is reddish brown, heavy and hard.

P. africana is a light-demanding tree which grows well in fertile, well-drained areas. One of the reasons for its decline in numbers is the poor environment for the seedlings to establish themselves, the fact that seedlings cannot survive in the dim floor of the primary forest. They grow better on the forest borders, or in patchy, disturbed areas

Medicinal uses

The uses of P. africana as a medicinal plant vary from one region to another. Where it occurs in eastern and southern Africa, it is used as a purgative for cattle (Kaulkman, 1965). It is also used as an inhalant to cure fever and stomach ache. In the North West Province of Cameroon, it is used as an infusion in hot water to cure fever. In the area around Mount Cameroon the bark is used as an infusion in hot water to cure chest infections. It is sometimes used as a tonic; a tea from the bark is drunk and vomiting is then induced by stimulating the epiglottis.

The greatest use so far of P. africana has been by the pharmaceutical industry. If this plant is over-harvested today, it is to satisfy the needs of industrial concerns such as Plantecam Medicam (Cameroon), Laboratoires Debat & Fournier (France), Indena Spa (Italy) and Merok and Dohme Ltd (Germany). P. africana extracts are used for the treatment of prostrate gland inflammation suffered by males of over 70 years of age (ICRAF 1994). The drugs so far produced from it are Tadenan (Laboratoires Debat), Pygenil (Indena Spa) and Proscar (Merck and Dohme).

Non-medical uses

The timber of P. africana is used for hoe, pick and axe handles, and the poles for fencing, firewood and charcoal. The wood is good for making furniture, although when dried the wood is liable to split during nailing. But nevertheless, it is quite durable, can be easily smoothed and varnishes well. The fruits are eaten by some rodents, bird and primate species, some of which are endemic to the Mount Cameroon area.

Threats to Prunus africana in the Mount Cameroon area

Threats to Prunus africana on Mount Cameroon are from two angles, human and natural:

Rationale for action: the issue

The wanton destruction of Prunus africana has raised concern in several quarters. The current status of this plant has been much discussed. Today, the question of its survival is no longer a simple conservation issue, but has expanded to involve the whole cultural heritage of the Bakweri tribe. There are a few surviving wotangus on the Mountain. What of the future? For how long will these trees remain standing? What will stand in their place when they die or are felled? For the Mount Cameroon Project, it goes without saying that these plants should be replaced.

Involving local communities

The participatory approach of the Mount Cameroon Project is very beneficial to the local people around Mount Cameroon. By maintaining their forest, they ensure the maintenance of their cultural heritage. The planting of Prunus africana alongside other species is one way of maintaining their forests. The MCP and Limbe Botanic Garden have been active in educating and encouraging local communities to undertake the cultivation of Prunus africana to replace damaged stocks.

Community education

The living collection of the Garden has been arranged according to themes. This arrangement has been made to highlight the inextricable link between plants and people. Local people visit the garden for free, and the feedback that the Garden has received from them has been enriching. In fact the idea of cultivating economic plant species in already-established farming systems came from visitors to the Garden. Cultural events are organised on special occasions in the 'Jungle Village'' (a natural amphitheatre in the Limbe Botanic Garden). During such meetings local people are shown the importance of plants using guided garden tours. Seminars and workshops on conservation education are organised with local school teachers in the Jungle Village and in other open-air areas of the Garden.

For communities that are a long way from Limbe, slide shows and lectures are organised in their villages. These activities teach the people a lot of things, including necessary techniques such as harvesting roots and barks and, more importantly, the absolute necessity for the forest (and therefore their culture) to survive. Fortunately local people understand the issues and are showing a lot of interest in conserving their forest resources. One example is the village of Mapanja, which successfully barred Plantecam Medicam and other licenced harvesters from debarking Prunus africana plants in their forest.

Other community benefits from the Limbe Botanic Garden Nursery included:


Cunningham, A.B. and Mbenkum, F.T (1993). Sustainability of harvesting Prunus africana bark in Cameroon: a medicinal plant in international trade. People and Plants Working Paper No. 2, UNESCO.

Kalkman, C (1965). The Old World Species of Prunus subgenus Laurocerasus. Blumea 13(1) p33-35.

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