Wetenschap - 30 januari 1997

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Bush mango as alternative to the chain-saw
The total area of tropical rainforest decreases daily. Logging companies and shifting cultivators have proved to be major stakeholders in the conversion of forests into agricultural land. In the search for alternatives, non-timber forest products (NTFP) are receiving growing attention from scientists. Tropical Forestry student Cecile Ndjebet Ngo explored the use and importance of NTFP in a village in Cameroon
Cecile Ndjebet Ngo has nearly finished her MSc in Tropical Forestry and is eager to return to Cameroon. Not only to see her family again, but also to put her newly acquired knowledge into practice. Ngo works in the forestry department and is involved in forest management activities together with the rural communities that use the forest. Ngo points out that all the forest officially used to belong to the state. In the past farmers and forest dwellers were forbidden by law to exploit the forest, which meant that they were condemned to live illegally as they depended on the forest for their livelihood. However, the law changed recently due to national and international pressure and the new legislation emphasizes the involvement of local people in the management of the forest. The idea is that villagers elect local committees which will draw up management plans with the help of the forestry department. Ngo was asked to develop this aspect of forestry management but lacked clear insight into the subject herself. She was glad that she and her colleague Oscar Tchuisseu were granted the opportunity to follow the MSc course on social forestry in Wageningen
Ngo welcomed the theoretical background provided on subjects such as property rights, forestry and rural development, the importance of indigenous knowledge, interests of different stakeholders and also on how to conduct investigations. The knowledge proved to be a great help during her field work in Nyangong, a small village in Cameroon. Here she made a survey of the different kinds of non-timber forest products (NTFP) used by local women. The interviews and extensive trips into the forest and surroundings resulted in a long list of Latin names, mostly of plants she had not come across previously
Irvingia gabonensis, the bush mango is a much liked tree in Nyangong, not for its timber but for its edible fruits. The kernels are used to thicken soup. Another is Elaeis guineensis, a palm species from which wine is extracted. These are just two of the many trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants which Ngo discovered are used for food, medicines, building materials, and to sell
Property rights
The results of Ngo's study show that NTFP are of great importance for villagers. In contrast with the name, however, NTFP are not only obtained in the forest but also from fallow land, home gardens, plantations and swamps. There is obviously no clear-cut division between agricultural land and forest. Trees of importance to local people were often left after clearing the forest, but sometimes they were planted intentionally. People practise a mixture of intensive gardening, agroforestry, shifting cultivation and gathering in a radius of up to seven kilometres around the village. It transpires that NTFP play a role in each of these systems
Cultural and legal aspects make the overall picture even more complex according to Ngo. She noticed that Nyangong women don't make use of the Gnetum sp. whereas women from her own tribe frequently use it in cooking as a vegetable. The MSc student also discovered intriguing rules concerning property and use rights. Any person may exploit a bush mango tree in the forest. However, to do the same with a tree standing on fallow land or a plantation requires the approval of the household, extended family and the Ndabot, a part of the clan within the village. In addition, the user is obliged to clear the area surrounding the tree of trees and shrubs and then convert it into agricultural land
The intricate relationships between villagers and the forest convinced Ngo of the necessity of first taking a close look at the communities themselves before subjecting them to a one dimensional forestry policy. According to the researcher the study also showed that the potential of NTFP has not yet been fully exploited, which would enable land to be used more intensively. In the long run this might lead to a decrease in the need for shifting cultivation practices which lead to the destruction of forest to make place for agricultural land
Timber
It would not be realistic, however, to expect NTFP alone to guarantee the preservation of forests Ngo continues. At national level timber companies are granted the right to exploit forest areas. According to the new forest law, companies need to negotiate with local people to reach agreement on the conditions under which they may cut down trees. Villagers mostly demand primary health care, schools and roads in return. According to Ngo, companies often fail to keep their promises, which leads to tension and fights in the villages. In addition, local people are excluded from a share in the revenues: they only receive a few hundred guilders for trees up to 30 metres high with a diameter greater than 1.5 metres. As long as such lucrative practices can continue timber companies will not leave the area or stop cutting down the forest, Ngo predicts
The combination of local land use systems and timber companies makes for a complex situation with many conflicting interests. This makes it extremely difficult to develop a strategy for sustainable management of the remaining forest. At the same time Ngo believes it provides proof of the need to incorporate the social aspects of forestry into current management practices. When I entered the department here forest was synonymous with timber for me. But having finished my studies I see the forest as something of great social importance. Ngo thinks that local people must play a vital role in forest management and she is eager to put this notion into practice. She realizes that her perception is likely to clash with current notions within the forestry department. This may obstruct her work, but nevertheless she is eager to go back to Cameroon and start work again: My boss called me to say they really needed me at the department. I have the feeling we can change a few things.
Postgrad course on gender in agriculture
The new MSc programme on Gender, Agriculture & Rural Development is the first of its kind in the world to deal specifically with gender, processes of rural change and sustainable development, explains Professor Patricia Howard-Borjas of the Department of Gender Studies in Agriculture
Howard-Borjas feels confident that the programme will be able to start in 1998. The programme is still subject to approval by the Educational Institute (OWI) for the Social Sciences and the University Council but it will be advertised in the new MSc programme brochure
Professor Ad Nooij, chair of the Education Institute, relates that the proposal was discussed at the OWI meeting last week. Nooij recognizes gender as a legitimate area of concern but is not necessarily in favour of a separate programme. At the OWI meeting it was emphasized that the possibility of linking the initiative to the MAKS programme should be investigated. Current WAU policy aims to prevent a proliferation of new programmes and furthermore, the curriculum would be cheaper if it were implemented as a specialisation, since it would involve less overhead costs
Joan Wolffensperger, Programme Director to be, agrees partly with Nooij. It would be a good idea to have one MSc programme in the Social Sciences with several specializations. That could still happen at a later stage. The MAKS and Gender programmes have quite different objectives and contents, so at the moment the MAKS programme staff see no realistic way of linking up the two programmes. If the programme starts in 1998 Wolffensperger reckons she can count on a constant intake of 25 students each year. A list of fellowship sources has been compiled for potential programme candidates. It appears that in the United States in particular there are foundations which grant fellowships specifically for studies on gender issues

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