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Planting to Replace: Helping Local Communities to Conserve their Forest Resources

Contributed by 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 ‘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:

It is the only area in West and Central Africa which presents a completely uninterrupted vegetation gradient from the coast through montane forest, savannah, to the alpine vegetation at its 4095m summit

Its rich volcanic soil has produced very dense forests, which include Mount Etinde and the Lowland forest of Mabeta-Mohwe. There is also a forest corridor which links the Mount Cameroon Forest to the Onge and Mokoko Forests in Meme and Ndian Divisions. These forests are rich in biodiversity, including:

  • 42 endemic plant species
  • 20 endemic bird species (8 of which are threatened) and 5 primate species (3 of which are endemic)
  • the highly-endangered forest elephant.

Mount Cameroon is also an important watershed for an extensive area. The whole of Fako Division and beyond depends on the mountain for its supply of fresh water.

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:

  • Hunting is carried out in the form of shooting and trapping. Previously it was a traditionally-accepted activity; animals killed were used mainly for subsistence. Although hunting was not an issue then, it is now commercialized and the number of animals killed is alarming. This has had an effect on the ecological system of the area in, for example, the reduction of seed dispersal due to the diminishing numbers of animals acting as carriers. The survival of some plant species is jeopardised in this way.
  • There is uncontrolled habitat destruction through commercial logging and the collection of firewood. Around the mountain there is a steady encroachment on the forest through clearing and burning, mainly for hunting and opening up new farms. CDC owns vast areas of virgin forest, more of which is opened up to plantation agriculture almost every year. The forests also contain certain plant species which are harvested without any replacement. This trend has been accelerated by the economic crisis and the quest for money. Species, which are collected for food include Gnetum africanum (eru), Irvingia gabonensis (sweet bushmango), Irvingia wumbulu/Irvingia excelsa (bitter bushmango), Afrostyrax kamerunensis (bush onion), and Piper guineensis (West African bush pepper). In addition to several timber species, there are also medicinal plants such as the controversial Prunus africana.
  • Soil erosion is already in evidence, with too much water running down the mountain. The cause is said to be the disappearance of the forest. In the rainy season, rocks and pebbles are hurled down the mountain by very powerful run-offs. In 1995 in Buea, the capital of the South West Province, a major road was destroyed by running water. Traffic stopped for days and the Minister of Public Works was called in from Yaounde.

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:


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 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

1) The human threat to Prunus africana in the Mount Cameroon forest area is far greater than the natural threat. This shows itself in two ways: over-harvesting and unsustainable harvesting.

Before 1985, the harvesting of Prunus africana did not pose a problem because it was monopolised by Plantecam Medicam. However, in 1985, about 50 Cameroonian entrepreneurs were given licences to harvest Prunus africana bark. The quantity harvested more than doubled between 1985 and 1991, as an annual average of 1923 tons of bark were harvested; at least 63% of the world market. For this harvest, 35,000 trees were debarked in approximately 63,000 ha of forest (Cunningham and Mbenkum, 1993). In the month of June l994 alone, 50 tones of bark was confiscated by Forestry Officers on Mount Cameroon. All this shows how much Prunus africana bark is harvested. When in 1993 the Government of Cameroon issued yet more licences to exploiters and exportation became general, the price per kg of P. africana bark moved up from CFA60F to CFA250F and the situation worsened.

The over-harvesting of Prunus africana without replacement is an issue in itself. Plantecam, which was then the only exploiter and exporter, used to train harvesters of P. africana. It was usually done in the dry season (October-May) and Plantecam staff were assisted by young men from the nearest village. Only two quarters (north and south or east and west sections) were to be taken from each main stem up to the first branch. When the price rose four-fold to CFA250F, this golden rule was disregarded. Trees were debarked as the harvester thought fit. Some trees were debarked up to the smallest- branches and others were even felled for maximum bark collectio). In a place like Oku, 80% of mature trees died as a result of poor harvesting methods. There is evidence from field trips that the population of Prunus africana is declining, with some trees completely dead and others having most of their branches dead.

2) There is a natural threat to P. africana, caused by the high predation on its seeds by animals and birds. This reduces the possibility of natural propagation. These predators may have been reduced by hunting but natural succession of this plant is still difficult, because even if the seeds of Prunus can germinate without light, the seedlings cannot survive without sufficient light. Almost 100% seedling mortality has been observed in the dim forest canopy.

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 P. 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 P. 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 P. africana plants in their forest.

Other community benefits from the Limbe Botanic Garden Nursery included:

  • the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC) established a 3 ha plantation of P.africana in Moliwe. It was the first plantation of P. africana anywhere in the world and is a direct result of the propagation programme of Limbe Botanic Garden. CDC has already planted 7000 seedlings supplied by Limbe Botanic Garden Nursery.
  • in the North West Province, a ‘Women in Development’ cooperative has planted a further 1.5 ha of P. africana, with seedlings from Limbe Botanic Garden Nursery.
  • the Forestry Research Division of the Mbalmayo Forestry School received P. africana material to undertake further trials in vegetation propagation.
  • a ‘Women in Development’ cooperative in Fako Division received 1000 P. africana seedlings from the Botanic Garden nursery for small-scale planting in fallow areas.
  • P. africana is prominent in the medicinal plant area of the Limbe Botanic Garden. The area was developed using material from the ‘Conservation through Conservation’ Programme. The educational value of such thematic planting cannot be over-stressed.
  • the Community Development Unit of the MCP has distributed 250 seedlings of P. africana to some villages.
  • The International Centre for Research in Agronomy (ICRAF) intends to establish a gene bank for P.africana. Limbe is currently (1996) raising 1700 plants for this.


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