The shea nut tree belt that stretches from the foothills of Ethiopian highlands through northern Uganda to Senegal in West Africa is endangered and being extensively cut down and no longer fruit well because their pollen in female flowers is dying and the female shea nut trees are stressed, forcing flower bud abortion.
GULU. For centuries, millions of people in Africa have relied on the shea tree, consuming both the fruit and nut.
The mildly sweet, green layer of pulp surrounding the inner nut can be eaten raw or cooked, used to make jams and jellies and added to baked foods or made into wine.
The nuts from shea trees are crushed to produce shea butter or moo yaa that offers a mild, nutty flavour and is used in enhancing food appearance, aroma and texture, and also applied in medicinal and beauty products and cultural rituals.
The trees occupy the ’shea belt’ that stretches from the foothills of Ethiopian highlands through northern Uganda to Senegal in West Africa.
Experts say shea trees also play a big role on our planet since they help create an agroforestry landscape across sub-Sahara and act as a carbon sink. The shea trees also provide vegetal cover that enables higher water infiltration, and slow down forest degradation and desertification.
But the shea parklands are struggling to fruit well, especially in northern Uganda. And this has been ongoing for sometime now. In fact, Peter Onek, a smallholder farmer in Patongo, Agago District, says, “The situation isn’t getting any better.”
Even worse, the trees are endangered in northern Uganda by large-scale cutting for charcoal production. To stop this, the government has since 2018 imposed a ban on shea tree cutting.
Under the 2018 shea tree ban, offenders either pay Shs600,000 or serve a year in jail.
Ambrose Olaa, the prime minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi or the Acholi cultural institution, which oversees 57 chiefdoms, has been working with the environment police unit to educate the people on the importance of safeguarding the environment and arresting culprits involved in cutting down the shea trees.
But Olaa says they are cash-strapped and cannot widely replicate their efforts. Nevertheless, he says, their informants are sometimes forced to rely on the fines paid by culprits to fund their work, including movements.
Despite these efforts, northern Uganda remains a hub for commercial charcoal burning and wood fuel supplies to as far away places as Kenya and South Sudan. The shea trees are often targeted because they make good charcoal that lasts longer, have high calorific value, high density wood structure, and burn with less smoke.
These factors have greatly heightened the cutting down of the shea trees.
A 2008 study by Makerere University indicates that the number of shea trees per hectare on fallow land had drooped from 20 to between 10 (young fallows) and 15 (old fallows) in 2017. Makerere University’s environment researcher, Patrick Byakagaba, says the drop could even be higher, given the scant data on how many shea trees have been felled since 2018 when the research was done.
He says government lacks the resources to monitor the tree numbers.
“The other big problem is that charcoal dealers often uproot the whole tree, leaving no [tree] stumps to count” Byakagaba says.
But there is another serious problem for the shea trees, namely struggling to fruit. This has been forced by high temperatures and dry spells across northern Uganda. This has made the shea trees less productive and have forced some farmers to opt for cutting down the trees, burn into charcoal and sell to earn a living.
The scientists now warn that the high temperatures and prolonged dry spells are stressing female shea trees leading to “flower bud abortion.”
“The high temperature in the region is killing pollen in female flowers,” says Laban Turyagyenda, the director of research at Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute (ZARDI) at Ngetta in Lira City, northern Uganda.
“This prevents pollination and, in the end, we don’t get any fruit,” he adds.
A recent study by ZARDI Ngetta discovered that most of the shea trees that were felled were female, and this has also had a big impact on their reproduction since the female trees, unlike the male ones, have this ability to fruit, Turyagyenda says.
Besides climate change, Peter Cronkleton, a senior scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research, says in an email interview that the increasing wildfires or bush burning have also compounded the danger of the trees not fruiting well.
But the dangers faced by the shea trees have also been impacting the people for the past four years. Among the Acholi, shea trees have a sentimental value and are considered sacred. The cultural leaders believe the shea trees are not fruiting well because the ‘gods are angry’ since the trees are being extensively cut down.
The experts believe that environmental culture, as is among the Acholi, plays a key role in conservation because it helps to instil fear in people by making it taboo to destroy the environment.
And this dire situation has prompted the Acholi cultural institution to work with various chiefdoms in the region to monitor the survival of the shea trees by instituting a network of informants. But this has not yielded much to save the invaluable trees from indiscriminate cutting for charcoal and money.
But the scientists at ZARDI in Ngetta say not all hope is lost as the trees in the parklands can still be be rejuvenated. To do this, the researchers are taking more practical measures to protect the shea trees.
At ZARDI in Ngetta, scientists are using grafting method to restore these trees. This method can help shea trees to quickly mature in 10 years instead of 25.
Turyagyenda says since last year, 4,500 grafted shea seedlings have been distributed in northern Uganda to replace the trees cut and also older ones which are now less productive.
The Lira City-based research institute also educates the locals, especially former farmers, who have resorted to charcoal burning to make money, on the importance of planting and protecting trees to maintain the micro-climate in the region.
ZARDI in Ngetta also teaches the locals skills, including beekeeping, mushroom farming, and winemaking from shea fruits. The idea is to lessen pressure exerted on natural resources like shea trees.