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Area (2003) 35.4, 357–370
The political ecology of Prunus africana in
Department of Geography, University College London, London WC1H 0AP Revised manuscript received 16 August 2003 This paper provides an analysis of some current trends in political ecology and thenillustrates the intermingling of politics and ecology using a case study of the exploitationand conservation of Prunus africana in Cameroon. It argues that political ecology is stilla lively field, but that some recent attempts to chart a way forward for this perspectiverisk shifting it away from its liminal position in relation to natural and social science bybeing disinclined to engage with ecological processes. The case study draws attention tothe strengths and shortcomings in existing attempts to weave political and economicanalysis into environmental debates over the sustainable management of this tree species,which has been incorporated into phytomedical markets in Europe. The fortunes of thetree reflect its botany and ecology as well as the trajectories of the local economy,intercontinental markets for alternative health products, the policies and practices of theCameroonian state and the politics of international aid. Key words: Cameroon, political ecology, Prunus africana, pygeum, conservation
And I looked and saw a whirling banner which ran so The label ‘political ecology’ has now reached a point fast that it seemed as if it could never make a stand, where it seems to be applied to more and more and behind it came so long a train of people that I empirical material in the social sciences, covering should never have believed death had undone so studies of urbanism, gender and the West as well as rural social movements in the non-West. Indeed,some analysts suggest that ‘political ecology has in Introduction
a sense almost dissolved itself’ (Watts 2000).
This paper argues that, despite the loss of focus In recent years, many of the ideas in human geo- that inevitably accompanies an increase in popular- graphy about the relationship between environment ity in any academic label, political ecology remains and development in the Third World have been lively and useful. By using a case study of Prunus organized under the whirling banner of ‘political africana in Cameroon, the aim is to show how the ecology’. This is the latest in a long series of prefixes addition of this perspective can augment the existing that have been attached to the term ecology and, work of policy-oriented conservationists doing re- despite its popularity in the social sciences, the new search in Africa (Laird and Lisinge 1998; Cunningham hybrid seems to be much less well known amongst and Cunningham 2000). If political ecologists in ecologists. Whilst this concept has been used since human geography have any interest in engaging the late 1960s (Russett 1967), it is only in the last with ecologists, then they need to show that they decade that it has both effloresced and, to a degree, have something distinctive, interesting and acces- coalesced around a set of particular propositions.
sible to offer to debates about conservation. Two ISSN 0004-0894 Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2003 different recent attempts to define a research agenda resources (an argument adopted by many ecologists), for political ecology (Swyngedouw et al. 2002; but that further, the discipline of ecology actively Forsyth 2003) are outlined here, though others denied its own political character by using the ideo- could have been chosen (Adger et al. 2001; Peluso logy of science as a shield. In particular, he drew and Watts 2001; Berkhout et al. 2003). The two attention to the hidden class character of the debates agendas described here present exciting, albeit con- in ecology about population and environment that trasting, prospects for social scientists, but neither were current at the time. His account reflects its invite any collaborative engagement with ecologists, context in its exuberant confidence in the power of Marxist theory to unmask this duplicity. When used The first section of the paper quickly summarizes in this way then, ‘political ecology’ was a dero- existing genealogies of political ecology (Bryant and gatory term more or less synonymous with the way Bailey 1996, 10 – 15; Peet and Watts 1996, 1 – 45; other Marxists used the label ‘neo-Malthusianism’ Stott and Sullivan 2000, 2 – 6; Forsyth 2003, 1 – 23).
(Harvey 1974). It seems ironic, therefore, that when This is intended to provide an introduction for those the term reappears two decades later, it was being who have not previously encountered this field. It used approvingly by Marxists (Swyngedouw 1997; then looks at current attempts to chart the way for- Lipietz 2000). However, this is less quirky than it ward for political ecological research. The second initially seems and there is actually continuity with section of the paper describes the conservation of the earlier Marxist analysis, since the current approach Prunus africana in Cameroon and aims to make a case sets out to replace the ideology of ecology (which for the contribution that a political-ecology perspec- presented the accumulation of scientific knowledge tive can bring to debates on the African environ- as independent of its social context) with a focus ment. The case study material is largely drawn from on Marxist theorizations of the real nature–society secondary sources. However, there have been sev- relationship. This new political ecology emerged both eral new developments since the most well known from the renewed general interest among Marxist report on this topic (Cunningham and Cunningham thinkers about nature (Smith 1984; Harvey 1993; 2000), which I learned about during fieldwork in Castree 1995; Benton 1996; O’Connor 1998; Keil 2000) and more specifically from a number of textsthat had successfully deployed Marxist frameworksin the empirical analysis of inter-related social and A history and two possible futures for
environmental debates on the capitalist periphery political ecology
(Wisner et al. 1982; Watts 1983). In this tradition, There are five main senses in which the term then, contemporary political ecology is a political- ‘political ecology’ has been commonly used in the economic analysis of the relationship between past; the first two are fairly trivial and will be dealt society and nature under capitalism.
with first, the other three represent more substantive The fourth use of the term political ecology also research traditions. The earliest use of the term dates from the early 1970s and emerged from political ecology took the idea of the interdepen- economic anthropology. It was concerned with the dence of organisms from the science of ecology and relationships between the physical environment, applied it to purely political questions. In other words production, resource ownership and the distribution ‘ecology’ was used as a metaphor for understanding of people. In this context, the agenda for political human politics. This use of the term can still be ecology was ‘to combine our inquiries into multiple found (Swift 1993), but is rare. The second use of local ecological contexts with a greater knowledge political ecology (or political ecologist) was as one of social and political history, the study of intergroup of the many synonyms for the political wing of the relations in wider structural fields’ (Wolf 1972, environmental movement. This use of the term is 204–5). Though this tradition of political ecology came to be defined as a field combining the concerns of The third use of political ecology emerges in the ecology and of political economy, it took little real 1970s (Enzenberger 1974), when it is deployed as a interest in ecology beyond the innate materials and means of criticizing the scientific discipline of ecol- productivity of the environment. By the 1990s, this ogy. Enzenberger’s argument was that not only was tradition of political ecology provided an intellec- ecology inevitably political because it included the tual home for those whose interests were predomi- analysis of the human species and its use of nantly political or economic, but who did not adhere The political ecology of Prunus africana to Marxism, preferring instead the discourses of wel- these categories continue to co-exist. The three fare and institutional economics or liberal political research approaches have informed each other to a science (Greenberg and Park 1994). Indeed, some far greater extent than is suggested by the process of influential political ecologists explicitly have retreated teasing out their differences; in fact, these traditions from engaging with any analysis of contemporary are almost completely interwoven in terms of their research in ecology because they want to assert the canonical texts. Yet, for all the common ground, primacy of the political as the driving force behind there are still differences between them. The Marxist environmental problems in the Third World (Bryant tradition runs the risk of becoming an abstract aca- demic exercise of defining the relationship between The fifth tradition is more closely associated with nature and society, but other traditions risk per- cultural ecology and is more explicitly concerned petuating the idea that it is possible conceptually to with questions of scale and biophysical processes separate a category of events (referred to as environ- and not purely political economy. It developed mental problems) from the social debates that sur- theoretically through empirical studies of specific round them. It is not correct to assert that environmental problems such as soil erosion anddeforestation in the developing world (Blaikie 1985; it is widely accepted that debates concerning‘political ecology’ refer to the social and political Hecht 1985; Blaikie and Brookfied 1987). These envir- conditions surrounding the causes, experiences and onmental problems were conceived as the product management of environmental problems. (Forsyth of the social, biological and physical context in any one place. Where many attempts to analyseenvironmental problems rigorously policed the because, for the Marxist tradition, this claim makes boundary between science and politics, political no sense since social and political conditions do not ecology sought explicitly to cross that frontier. It ‘surround’ environmental problems; that distinction should, however, be added that the bulk of political is collapsed and the social and environmental are ecologists are social scientists and only a few melded into a unity. Put another way, there is no have succeeded in incorporating an understanding consensus over what counts as an environmental of biophysical processes into their analysis (Roche- problem. For some political ecologists, access to safe leau and Ross 1995; Zimmerer 1996; Leach and Fair- drinking water for the urban poor is an environ- head 1999; Sullivan 2000; Batterbury 2001).
mental problem, but for others it is not, though its Regardless of which tradition it comes from, consequences might be. Debates about what con- political ecology attempts to insert political concepts stitutes an environmental problem are clearly informed into environmental debates in a quite different way by theorizations of the relationship between nature to political science. Where political scientists are and society, whilst reciprocally debates over the concerned with green political theory, the impact of relationship between nature and society become green parties and lobby groups on the formal politi- sterile if disconnected from any sense of relevance cal process and the state’s role in environmental to environmental policy. So the traditions of political management, political ecologists are concerned with ecology are intertwined, but distinct. The tension a far broader notion of the political dimensions of between them is the force that keeps political ecology the interaction between the state and other actors lively, as can be seen by examining two (out of and the places where they live. It sees politics as the many) different contemporary visions for the future competition between humans over the division of resources, and looks at the means by which differ- In a paper about the sustainability of urban water ent actors deploy whatever power they have to supplies in Europe, Swyngedouw et al. (2002, 124–5) achieve their ends. In addition, it seeks to set that set out ten axioms of political ecology (Figure 1).
contest between actors into an historical context of The first five are ontological claims about the char- structural changes in the political economy. The aim acter of the relationship between nature and society.
is to understand environmental problems in their The second five are normative claims about the future research agenda for political ecology. This Whereas some descriptions of the history of is very much in the Marxist tradition of political political ecology suggest that the third category ecology, so it is strange that these principles do not described here was supplanted in the 1990s (Bryant include a claim about the driving force behind the and Bailey 1996, 13), it is suggested here that all process of change they describe, which can be The thing we call the ‘Environment’ is a combined social and physical construction, which is histori- cally produced. What is generally referred to as environmental change would be better labelled socio-environmental change.
There is nothing unnatural about produced environments (such as cities, plantations or irrigation schemes).
The character of socio-environmental change is not independent of the social context in which it occurs.
All processes of social change are predicated on changes to the bio-physical fabric.
Changes to the bio-physical fabric invariably have both positive and negative effects for different social groups. So, socio-environmental change is never politically neutral.
Political ecology should reveal the contradictory outcomes of socio-environmental change.
Political ecology should understand the social power relations that determine the course of socio-ecological change.
Political ecology should identify who benefits and who gains from sustaining particular socio-environmental configurations. Questions of sustainability are seen as fundamentally political questions: whose interests are served by sustaining the status quo? Political ecology should identify the way in which the relations between social groups (classes, genders, ethnicities) are forged through the processes of socio-environmental change.
10 Political ecology should enhance the democratic content of existing environmental politics by identi- fying strategies for distributing social power more equitably and by identifying strategies for making the process of producing environments more inclusive.
Ten axioms of political ecology
Source: Derived from Swyngedouw et al. (2002) assumed to be the accumulation of capital. For future of political ecology and its contribution to the these authors, the point of studying ecological amelioration of environmental problems (2003, 20–2).
change is to understand social power relations, and This builds on earlier work, which has looked at to strategize about how best to change those rela- the way in which the scientific language of ecology tions in the name of equity. One of their core claims is has been used to justify environmental policy (Stott that the very idea of separating nature and society and Sullivan 2000). The suggestion is that the object serves the interests of particular groups. For example, of political ecological study should be science (spec- patriarchy, heterosexism, greed and inequality ifically environmental science) and science policy.
are all portrayed as ‘natural’ and, therefore, inevita- Forsyth takes ecology far more seriously than most ble. But, by foregrounding the notion that the ‘idea contemporary political ecologists, but he certainly of nature’ is a mask which hides the real mecha- doesn’t see the facts given by environmental science nisms that operate in social life, there is a risk that as a secure basis for a debate about environmental such an analysis appears to be little more than a problems. Rather, the central claim is that the evo- crude process of undermining the politics of envir- lution of environmental knowledge is part of the onmentalism. Rather, the focus of this version of political debate; politics and ecology are ‘co- political ecology is on the mutually constitutive produced’ (Forsyth 2003, 266). His strategy for re- relations between a materialist notion of nature as evaluating the laws of environmental science is to biophysical fabric and the ideological notion of combine existing political ecology with so-called nature as a cultural representation (Gandy 2002, 7).
‘science and technology studies’ (STS examine the This approach escapes the straightjacket of much production of scientific disciplines and knowledge existing environmental politics which perpetuate a in relation to their social and technological contexts).
reactionary ‘ideology of nature’ (Smith 1984). How- He distances himself from a radical constructivist ever, it doesn’t really take ecology very seriously position and instead repeatedly asserts a commitment and pays little attention to non-human organisms.
to a ‘real’ nature, but still aims to make the focus of It shies away from any serious engagement with research an analysis of discourse and knowledge production. His aim is to analyse how ecological Ideas about scientific knowledge production are statements about the real world have been produced, at the centre of Tim Forsyth’s discussion of the and what political impact such statements have had.
The political ecology of Prunus africana The proposal is that political ecology should now Swyngedouw et al. have relatively little apparent look to new theoretical areas (critical realism, prag- interest in understanding biophysical processes, and matism and post-structuralist analysis of situated dis- frequently reassert the centrality of the politics in course). Such a programme is justified by claiming political ecology. Forsyth, on the other hand, specif- that the uncritical acceptance of the products of ically addresses biophysical processes and argues environmental science research can produce bad that social scientists have something substantial to environmental policy, since it may oversimplify ‘the offer to environmental debates. However, he is not underlying biophysical causes of environmental willing to dispense with a critique of positivism (to problems [and] . . . impose unnecessary and unfair which much of the early part of his book is dedi- restrictions on livelihoods of marginalized people’ cated) in order to pursue this collaboration. He is (Forsyth 2003, 11). Furthermore, when environmen- consistently critical of the discipline ecology – that talists rely on ‘orthodox’ science to defend their is the exclusive network of people who claim to have political project from the obfuscatory brownlash of authoritative ecological knowledge. By grounding industry, they run the risk of confusing ecology (an his analysis in post-structuralism and science stud- alleged accurate science) with ecologism (an ideo- ies, he adopts a framework that (despite his best logical statement about how the world is meant to efforts to demonstrate a commitment to a grounded be). It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a book nature and the merits of critical scientific research) that is about science is moving political ecology away is likely to be interpreted as antagonistic by most from its engagement with science, but the tone of ecologists, particularly in the intellectual context of the engagement in this vision is unlikely to lead to the so-called ‘science wars’. So, whilst Forsyth does engage with the detail of contemporary scientific Both of these approaches see the facts produced work on, for example, soil erosion, his purpose of by ecology as socially pragmatic rather than units doing so is to make the case that current ecological of information. Both try to avoid separating debates research suggests that accepted scientific truths over environmentalism and politics. Both have a should be questioned and that, therefore, there is a revelatory structure, though where one seeks to wider project of questioning the use of existing unmask the political functions of the idea of nature, environmental laws in policy-making. In both of the other seeks to unmask the hidden politics behind these two potential futures for political ecology, the the scientific discourse of ecology. In these senses, relationship between natural and social science both are different from much existing political ecol- ogy. But they are also different from each other – The question remains, how can those interested where one is a critique of capitalism, the other is a in politics convince those interested in ecology of critique of positivist science. Indeed, at one point the value of the social scientific contribution to Forsyth overtly questions the essentialist link between debates over conservation, whilst at the same time capitalism and environmental degradation that has continuing the critique of a discipline of ecology been the touchstone of much Marxist political ecol- that claims to be a privileged form of knowledge ogy by asking ‘how the opposition to capitalism may production? Perhaps part of the answer lies in con- have influenced the production of environmental ceding that if political knowledge and ecological knowledge’ (Forsyth 2003, 7). Where both approaches knowledge really are co-produced, then it is neces- share a desire to make the politics of environmen- sary for social scientists to suspend their disbelief talism more inclusive, they differ in their confidence and study biophysical processes in order to under- about identifying the victims and villains in environ- stand the production of politics. Such a move might, mental debates. Where Swyngedouw et al. advocate co-incidentally, go some way towards appeasing direct involvement in political struggles around sus- those who claim that social scientists ‘require a tainability in the name of equity, Forsyth is more grasp of the principles of natural science, without circumspect and acknowledges the significance of which their contribution is all critique and no sub- the post-structural critique of representation and the stance about the interactions and outcomes within significance of context when defining social justice the natural world’ (Blaikie 1995, 13). But the more effective strategy must be to demonstrate the value Neither project invites collaboration with those of political ecology, rather than to talk about it, ecologists who are not self-critical about the ideol- which is what the second half of this paper aims to ogy inherent in their research and its links to policy.
Prunus africana: green gold on Mount
bark has been used internationally as a treatment for such symptoms since the eighteenth century, For some years, Anthony Cunningham and colleagues when European travellers brought it back from South at Kew Gardens in London, members of the Mount Africa (Simons and Tchoundjeu 1998). However, Cameroon integrated conservation and development widescale commercial production has only been project in Limbe / Buea and members of the Forestry taking place since the mid-1960s, when a patent for Department at Bangor University, have been develop- a preparation based on the bark was first lodged by ing policy, projects and research for the conservation a French entrepreneur (Debat 1966). It is sold as of Prunus africana in Cameroon. Not only has this Tadenan (produced by Laboratoires Debat in France), work synthesized existing botanical and ecological Pygenil (Indena Spa in Italy), Proscar (Merck and research on Prunus africana (O’Brien and Youde Dohme in Germany) or as Pygeum in a range of 1999), it also shows a subtle appreciation of the health food outlets. Placebo-controlled double-blind complex relationships between people and plants studies have demonstrated some medical effective- ness, though the precise mechanism by which it Prunus africana, a member of the Rosaceae family, reduces swelling in the prostate is still poorly under- is an evergreen tree species, with leathery leaves, stood (Chatelain et al. 1999). A review of 18 different deeply fissured bark and creamy white flowers. It is small-scale, short, randomized studies concluded also known by a variety of other names including that Pygeum provided only moderate relief to some Pygeum africanum, African cherry and red stinkwood.
of the symptoms of BPH. Mean peak urinary flow It is a wild relative of plum trees and produces a rate was increased by 2 millilitres per second (Ishani cherry-like fruit, which is a favoured part of the diet et al. 2000). A more elaborate study is currently of many bird and animal species. Globally, there being undertaken in the US, but is unlikely to report are more than 200 species in the genus Prunus, but before 2007. There is still considerable scepticism in this is the only one found in Africa, and it is unique orthodox medical circles about the benefits of Pygeum to Africa. It is not rare and is found across the con- and it competes with standard pharmaceutical tinent at altitudes between 900 and 3000 metres.
treatments (alpha-blockers and 5-alpha-reductase However, because it cannot grow much below 1000 inhibitors), other herbal treatments and surgery.
metres, it tends to be found in island populations, The medicinal interest in the tree has generated a so although it is widespread, it has a discontinuous substantial international business. The trade in dried distribution, which has specific implications in Prunus bark and bark extract is in the order of 3000 – terms of maintaining intra-species genetic variation 5000 tonnes a year (Alternative Medicine Review (Barker et al. 1994). It can grow up to 45 metres tall 2002) and the main sources are in Cameroon, and the hard wood of the trunk is used for making Madagascar, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Uganda and the handles of tools (Marcelin et al. 2000), but it is Tanzania. In Cameroon, bark is bought for about the bark that has brought the tree to international 60 or 70 US cents a kilo, and a packet of 15 tablets finally retails in Europe at around US$8 (Cunningham Herbal preparations made from the bark of Prunus and Mbenkum 1993). Today, Pygeum is the favour- africana historically have been employed by Afri- ite herbal remedy for BPH in France and is also widely cans to treat chest pain, malaria, inflammation, used in Spain, Italy and Germany (Schippmann fever and kidney disease, as well as for producing a 2001). In the US, however, another herbal prepara- cattle purgative (Leigh 2000). However, currently its tion, saw palmetto, is preferred, though demand for most important commercial use is to relieve the Pygeum is also on the rise. The global annual trade symptoms of benign prostatic hypertrophy or the in Prunus bark is variously estimated to be worth related condition of benign prostatic hyperstasia between US$150 and US$220 million (Cunningham (BPH), both of which are swellings of the prostate and Mbenkum 1993). Given the increasing interests that are common amongst older men (BPH affects in ‘natural’ remedies and also that men are likely around one-third of men over 50 in the UK). The to live longer, the demand for Pygeum can be prostate is a gland about the size of a walnut, which is found only in males, surrounding the urethra. If Cameroon was one of the major sources of Pygeum the central part of the prostate swells, it becomes supply from the early 1970s, when the French increasingly difficult and painful for men to empty company Laboratoire Debat established a factory at their bladder. According to some sources, Prunus Mutengene, on the lower slopes of Mount Cameroon.
The political ecology of Prunus africana Operating as Plantecam Medicam, the company Plantecam always had to negotiate with both the prepared bark extracts in tablet form from bark har- institutions of the Government and local communi- vested in the wild. By 1995, the company had a ties. In many cases (especially in the West and turnover of US$4 million and 250 employees. They Northwest Provinces), Plantecam gained access for processed 200 tons of bark in 1980, but this had their collectors to the trees through a commercial risen to 3100 tons a decade later (Cunningham and arrangement with local traditional rulers who pre- Mbenkum 1993). Plantecam’s employees were mostly sented themselves as the leaders of local communi- bark collectors who each brought 40 kilo bundles of ties and, therefore, the owners of the trees. Because bark to the factory for processing. Prunus africana of the uncontested authority of these rulers amongst has not, so far, been extensively cultivated and the some ethnic groups (such as Bamiléké and Lam’nso bark trade in Cameroon is still derived entirely from speakers), this was an effective strategy. It had paral- wild plants. The trade in Prunus bark also generated lels in longstanding arrangements in which chiefly tax revenue for the Cameroonian state, some of which families owned all the oil-producing palms, even on officially was earmarked for forest regeneration land which was farmed and controlled by other families. As such, it made sense in the new circum- Prunus africana can survive the removal of some stances of financial value being placed on Prunus bark and there is the possibility, therefore, for har- for the first time to claim that Prunus trees were vesting bark without felling or killing the tree.
According to Plantecam, their bark collectors were Such a local access strategy was less successful trained to gather the bark in the least damaging way.
in large parts of the Southwest Province, where the They were not permitted to fell the trees to collect polities are much smaller and where many ethnic the bark and they were expected to remove bark from groups are acephelous. For example, amongst the up to only 50 per cent of the circumference of the Bakweri people, who live on the Southeast side of tree and from opposite sides of the trunk in order to Mount Cameroon, the basic landowning unit is the prevent girdling, which would kill that specimen lineage (litumba), which is a small, close, kinship (Marcelin et al. 2000). Nor were they permitted to group whose members are all related to a common return to the same tree for further harvesting for five ancestor. Whilst the single senior member of the line- years. The claim that the collection technique age controls the distribution of land, family mem- described was sustainable, if properly followed, was bers have usufruct rights over parcels during their endorsed by the botanists and conservationists lifetimes (Ardener 1996, 175). Various chiefly lines working at Limbe and Buea. This elaborate harvest- have competed for superiority over lineages ever ing process was a product of the species’ particular since colonial institutions made it worth asserting paramountcy (Geschiere 1993; Ardener 1996, 47– Bark was sourced from Mount Cameroon and other 9), but no one line has successfully asserted its upland forest areas in the Southwest, West and dominance. As a result, no single figure would have Northwest Provinces. Over time, easy sources of had the authority to claim ‘traditional’ ownership Prunus in the West and Northwest Provinces were of Prunus and village councils might well have depleted and harvesting became increasingly focused rebuked any chief who tried to gain personal finan- on Mount Cameroon (Laird and Lisinge 1998). Prunus cial benefits from such arrangements.
is an important part of Cameroon’s upland forest In addition, this area was one of the first parts of ecosystems, particularly on Mount Cameroon, where Cameroon to be colonized and from the early it is one of main species of the upper canopy.
twentieth century there were moves to Gazette the Mount Cameroon is West Africa’s highest mountain forests on the mountain as Reserves. Having experi- and one of its key montane forests. It is a ‘hotspot’ enced considerable land loss in the late nineteenth for biodiversity, with at least 49 endemic plant century (when German colonists appropriated species, three endemic primate species and several Bakweri land for plantations) and further land loss endangered species such as the forest elephant, throughout the twentieth century (as the result of immigration by other ethnic groups attracted to the Access to, and ownership of, Prunus specimens economic opportunities provided by the plantations), has always been contested. Whilst de jure control of the Bakweri were hostile to attempts to turn the forest resources lies with the Government, de facto mountain into a Government-controlled Reserve. So control is often in the hands of more local institutions.
when reserves was established in 1939 and 1952, control was vested in the Native Authority – the night, so as to evade the Government’s forest guards principal governance institution of indirect rule. The and bribed local people into giving them permission result was that the line between modern property to harvest the bark (Achieng 1999). By 1995, Prunus rights and indigenous resource tenure has always harvesting was the major source of cash income for been blurred and different Native Authorities, vil- many young men in the area (Ewusi 1998). Conflicts lages and villagers contest all claims of ownership.
developed within villages, between villages and The historic experience of the Bakweri has meant between the conservationists (both local and inter- that individuals are very alert to questions of owner- national), the Government and Plantecam.
ship (Nyamnjoh 1999, 108) and the whole question The result of withdrawing the monopoly has been extensive debarking and destruction of the trees Much of Plantecam’s success in accessing sup- in the wild to a level viewed by conservationists plies of bark depended on the positive relationships and the Cameroonian Government as unsustainable.
developed between those living where Prunus grew Whilst harvesting a tree in the approved manner and their employees who acted as bark collectors, can yield US$10–20 dollars per tree, felling and most of whom came from one village in the West stripping it can instantly yield bark worth US$200 Province. As supplies in the West and Northwest (Futureharvest 2000). According to a representative declined, these individual bark collectors had to of the Department of Forestry, Christian Asanga, roam further and further in search of new sources; ‘Prunus was a common tree in Cameroon, but now they ceased to collect from within areas they knew it is scarce, due to unsustainable harvesting’ (Achieng or where they were known or where they respected 1999). The loss of the tree is also of concern to cultural mores. This undermined the trust that had local people, who have lost access to an important been developed in the areas where they were gather- source of a range of traditional medicines. Further- ing, particularly in the context of growing popular more, in some places it is claimed that illegal har- antagonism between residents of the Northwest and vesters have collected bark from within culturally Southwest, which was deliberately fostered by the significant ‘sacred groves’, which are used as the Government in the 1990s (Nyamnjoh 1999). This added to the potential for disputes over regulating A variety of ecological processes have been changed access to Prunus on Mount Cameroon.
as a result of this loss of regulation. First, mature Between 1972 and 1985, Plantecam had a mono- Prunus trees produce the largest quantities of seeds, poly of the harvesting licenses for Pygeum and as a but they are also the specimens most favoured by result was able (to a degree) to control exploitation bark collectors. This may have long-term implica- (Cunningham and Cunningham 2000). After 1985, tions for the reproduction of the species. Second, when Plantecam’s monopoly was revoked and 50 the shift in the forest population to harvesting trees additional harvesting licenses were provided to with smaller trunk diameters may change canopy- Cameroonian entrepreneurs, the level of regulation gap dynamics as other species move in and change of bark harvesting declined (Ndibi and Kay 1997).
the species composition. As international demand In 1993, export licenses for Pygeum were given to for the bark escalates, some conservationists fear three Cameroonian companies (Laird and Lisinge that non-sustainable harvesting may push the spe- 1998). New institutional structures and practices cies to the brink of extinction. Even if it does not, its emerged as a result. Illegal harvesting of Prunus exploitation has consequences for the balance of became widespread. Plantecam started to process species on Mount Cameroon, with its preciously more bark that was brought to them by individuals guarded biodiversity. In addition, there is a possible other than their employees. In particular, a new separate species, Prunus crassifolia, also used for group of middlemen emerged, who paid individual medicine, which is found only in Kivu, Zaire and collectors for bark and then sold to Plantecam at a which, if it is a separate species, is already endan- higher price. Whilst Plantecam ensures that the bark gered. Prunus africana was placed in appendix 2 of gathered by its own collectors is harvested sustaina- the Convention on International Trade in Endan- bly, it has no obligation to check on the provenance gered Species (CITES) in 1994. This means that of the bark supplied to it by middlemen. The new whilst trade is permitted, CITES permits are needed exporters had little interest in the sustainable sourc- to harvest or export it. It is considered a species that, ing of Pygeum. Commentators claim that a group if not endangered, requires close observation and of ‘bark poachers’ emerged who went to villages at controlled harvesting. But this has done little to stop The political ecology of Prunus africana illegal exporters in Cameroon from overexploiting the Government of Cameroon to reassert control over the tree because of the problems of implementation harvesting and to proceed in a more ecologically The main strategy proposed to prevent what con- In 1997, the Mount Cameroon Project (a conser- servationists see as negative ecological outcomes is vation and development project funded by Cam- domestication of the species (Dawson 1997). Culti- eroonian, UK and German governments) negotiated vation of Prunus africana could take two forms, either agreements between Plantecam and a number of through individual farmers planting seedlings amongst villages on Mount Cameroon. In return for training their other crops or through the establishment of in sustainable harvesting techniques, villagers were dedicated plantations. Since the early 1990s, Plante- to receive a better price for bark from Plantecam cam were obliged in the terms of their license to (Laird and Lisinge 1998). In 1996, 1998 and 1999, establish five hectares of Prunus plantation a year.
the Mount Cameroon Project conducted inventories This they failed to do. However, even if this were of the Prunus on Mount Cameroon (Ewusi 1998).
achieved, it would not be sufficient to replace the They concluded that tough new quotas on harvest- wild harvested trees. It is estimated that in order to ing were needed (Whewell 2001). In addition, they produce the existing levels of bark, between 640 encouraged the village bark harvesters to form and 820 hectares of plantations would be required Unions in order to ensure training to improve bark (Akong 2000; Cunningham and Cunningham 2000).
harvesting techniques, to police poaching and also Encouragingly, though, small-scale farmers in Cam- to make sure that collectors received appropriate eroon have begun cultivating Prunus africana. This prices for their products by cutting out the interme- is not the result of an organized development initia- diaries (Akong 1999). In November 1999, the Gov- tive or of the provision of incentives. Rather, farmers ernment of Cameroon issued an arrete which asserted have planted the trees as part of an agroforestry sys- its desire to install a very strong system of control tem out of their own initiative, hoping to make use over Prunus harvesting and the Governor of the of them for a variety of purposes. However, though Southwest Province imposed a complete ban on it is a relatively fast-growing species, the bark crop harvesting Prunus (Mount Cameroon Project 1999).
is unlikely to be ready for harvest for 18 years. This Plantecam’s licensed harvest was reduced from agroforestry is thought to be a more promising strat- 1500 tons to 300 (Adams 2000b). In 2000, Plante- egy for the cultivation of Prunus than establishing cam closed down their factory and left Cameroon, plantations in an area where suitable land is rela- the assets were sold and the 300 staff laid off tively scarce and always politically contested. In either context, one of the main constraints on domestica- Plantecam claimed that the proposed quotas that tion is a shortage of seeds, and the short period for followed the forest survey meant that production which seeds can be kept viable, the majority of seeds was no longer an economic proposition. Most of will not germinate unless they are planted within a their redundant workers hold the conservation lobby few days of being collected. Research in Kenya has responsible for the loss of jobs (Adams 2000b).
set out to find alternative methods of producing Additional explanations suggest that the organized economic resistance by collectors reduced profit In the late 1990s, Prunus achieved a level of inter- margins and opportunities for rent-seeking be- national notoriety (Sunderland and Nkefor 1997; haviour by middlemen and Plantecam. Production Ackworth and Ewusi 1999; Sunderland and Tako continues in France, from where different less well- 1999). Strident voices, particularly from the Nairobi- publicized sources of unprocessed bark, such as based International Centre for Research in Agrofor- Madagascar, could be accessed (Dailey and Fernandes estry, declared that ‘just as the panda bear serves as 2001). The unintended outcome of a conservationist a symbol for protecting endangered animals, Prunus success in Cameroon has been a conservation problem africana is the icon for saving trees threatened by in Madagascar. The Government of Cameroon is extinction’ (Futureharvest 2000). The future of Pru- not currently issuing harvesting permits, though nus in Cameroon was even discussed in the British local harvesters have ambitions to start up their own Parliament and the Department for International company based on sustainable practices and using Development opted to make it a flagship issue. They the community forestry law (Fuh 2000). Ultimately, threatened to withdraw their funding for aid projects though, it will be hard for them to compete in in Southwest Cameroon unless action was taken by global markets with suppliers that don’t face such tight environmental regulations (Whewell 2001). Perhaps economic terms, but also in ecological terms, as the the most secure economic route for a Cameroonian forest supplies those who are trying to domesticate producer would be to pursue local (national and the species with the diversity of genetic material West African) markets for medicine derived from they need. Yet the language used by conservation- ists to justify interventions on Mount Cameroon stilldeploys images of pristine nature.
Third, the acceleration in the harvesting of Prunus Conclusions
bark may result in the deterioration of the Cameroo- Why, then, is this example intriguing, and how nian environment, but how can that be set against could political ecologists add to this narrative? First, the relief that this deforestation brought to those suf- it shows the co-determination of social and environ- fering from BPH in France, Spain and Italy? By con- mental change. The bark harvesters initially trained structing a storyline around the tree and the forest in by Plantecam came almost exclusively from one Cameroon, the story of medical treatment in Europe village in the West Province. Yet, they roamed widely is neglected. This is a clear example of the import- across all the areas where Prunus grew to harvest it.
ance of a scaled political ecology model which They ceased to be tied to their own land and regar- overtly links the forces operating at different scales ded the trees as a means of earning their own (from the world market for Prunus extract to individ- livelihood through selling their own labour power.
ual forest tracts) within one narrative. It would be This social process of proletarianization has particular reasonable to say that the future of Prunus on Mount implications for the relationship between the har- Cameroon is less likely to be determined by conser- vesters, the local communities and the trees in terms vation projects than by the relative popularity of of questions of ownership and long-term ideas of drugs as opposed to surgery, ‘natural’ remedies as stewardship. This social shift changes the relationship opposed to ‘artificial’ ones and Pygeum as opposed between people and plants. It is a change observed to saw palmetto in the treatment of BPH in the by one traditional ruler, the Fon of ‘Nso, who claimed West. One irony here is that the Pygeum tablets are that people stopped thinking of the forest as a com- marketed as gentler, safer and more natural than munity asset and started to think about it as resource standard drug treatments, yet the alternative medi- to be exploited for personal gain’ (Cunningham cine industry is the underlying force behind what and Cunningham 2000, 321). However, equally the conservationists portray as a negative change in the ongoing incorporation of wild Prunus into a circuit ecology of the forests of Mount Cameroon. Some of international capital accumulation is shaped by retailers of complementary medicine refuse to stock the ecology of the tree. Its ability to withstand a Pygeum tablets, because they cannot guarantee that certain degree of bark removal, its rate of growth, its the bark has been harvested sustainably. Another distribution, the character of its production of seeds, irony is the centrality of African knowledge in the its place in the species mosaic are all factors that marketing narrative of these medicines in Europe, ultimately shaped the trajectory of the commercial and the centrality of African ignorance in the con- business of producing Pygeum tablets. In particular, servation narrative that emerged from Cameroon in the very long period between planting and harves- the late 1990s. Cameroonian wisdom about Prunus ting the bark has shaped the evolution of this was at the heart of initial product development, emerging business by ensuring that wild sources have reworking a longstanding idea of African closeness been preferred to plantations or small-scale production.
to nature. Yet environmentalists vilified Cameroon- Second, the emerging possibilities of domesticat- ian bark harvesters and entrepreneurs for their ing Prunus trees in Cameroon illustrate the falsity of irresponsible attitude towards nature and a lack of the notion of pristine nature (the wild forest) entirely interest in sustainability when compared to the separate from the produced nature (the plantation or farm). The main strategy for conserving the ‘forest’ is Fourth, and this is where existing accounts are to undermine the economic demand for ‘wild’ tree most lacking, the narrative of the over-exploitation bark by generating an alternative source of supply.
of Cameroonian Prunus is not independent of the What is ‘natural’ about a forest when it depends specific historical conditions and social institutions on the growth of a plantation or agroforestry system that accompany them at a national and regional elsewhere for its own continued survival? The plan- scale. Though the ethnobotanical approach is very tation and the forest are interdependent not only in open to anthropological contributions (Laird 1999), The political ecology of Prunus africana existing work by conservationists on Prunus africana nostalgic about that period when Plantecam operated in Cameroon does not engage with the best political with a monopoly. By so doing, they set themselves analyses of contemporary Cameroon at all (Jua 1991; up in opposition to local political-economic elites, Mbembe 1992; Ngwane 1997; Eyoh 1998; Nyamnjoh they demonize local entrepreneurs and appear to be 1999). Why is it that the Plantecam monopolies on defending an unaccountable, undemocratic foreign harvesting and export were changed in 1985 and company, which later proved to have failed to live 1993? Because this is precisely the moment when up to its environmental responsibilities anyway. If the growth of the economy in Cameroon starts to some kind of monopoly control over production is decline for the first time since independence in 1960.
the best means of harvesting wild Prunus sustaina- In the context of the Government’s declining reve- bly, then the obvious institution through which that nues and (some years later) its inability to pay its civil monopoly should theoretically operate is the state.
service wage bill, it is coerced into making a range However, given that the first assumption of all ana- of concessions to international lenders. These demands lysts of the Cameroonian state is that it is neither reflect the dominant beliefs of those lenders at the competent nor accountable, then should the first time, particularly in relation to the merits of free goal of foreign intervention in the name of conser- markets and the problems of protectionism. In gen- vation be not to protect trees but to promote eral, these concessions were perceived to disadvan- tage Cameroonian entrepreneurs, whose markets Finally, the argument in the first part of this paper had previously been protected through the support claimed that it was necessary for political ecologists of their allies in the Cameroonian political elite.
who were social scientists to take the ecological However, in the particular context of the Prunus bark knowledge of conservationists seriously. At the scale trade, the reverse is true. A French-owned company of the individual tree species, it is clear that the operating in Cameroon held the monopoly, opening particular character of Prunus africana has, in part, it up to competition meant opening the market to steered the narrative of its exploitation and conser- local national capital. It is not hard to imagine the vation. To tell this story, it is necessary to be able to glee with which the Cameroonian Government would judge the degree to which Prunus really is medici- open up this particular business to national capital, nally useful, which requires engagement with the regardless of the objections of conservationists.
literature from medicine. It is necessary to be able Why did bark exploitation accelerate so dramati- to judge whether it really is possible to harvest the cally in 1994 – 5? Again, the national economic and tree sustainably by removing 50 per cent of the bark political context took a dramatic lurch at this moment.
once every five years, which requires engagement The currency devaluation and wage cuts at that time with a literature from botany. It is necessary to be must be part of the explanation (Konings 1996).
able to judge whether it really is hard to grow seed- Whilst corruption has been endemic in the Cam- lings and domesticate the tree, which requires eroonian state for many years, it has ebbed and engagement with the literature from agriculture. The flowed. The common consensus is that there was a specific botanical attributes of this species are cen- dramatic deepening of corruption in 1994 – 5, not tral to any political ecological narrative. Second, in only in the sense that corrupt civil servants tried to this case study it is necessary to understand the rela- extract more in volume, but more, and more junior, tionship between Prunus africana and the other civil servants began to use their positions within the plant and animal species within the montane forest bureaucracy as an accumulation strategy (Page 2002).
of Cameroon. Understanding the significance of To understand the recent history of Prunus conser- this plant within a broader species mosaic is vital to vation, it is necessary to put it into the historical making the case that this plant does matter and context of political economy. In this respect, the assessing the relative worth of regulating its exploi- standard procedures for the incorporation of social tation. Third, understanding the ecological argument science into environmental decisionmaking, namely for the broader significance of Mount Cameroon as log-frames and stakeholder analysis, tends to be a ‘hotspot’ of biodiversity is also central to any scaled inadequate, because it is insufficiently attentive to understanding of, say, normative arguments about history and context beyond the local or project the disbursement or withholding of international support to Cameroon development or conservation In addition, it is unfortunate and unstrategic for projects. Is it justified to hold Cameroonian social those who wish to defend Prunus that they are development projects hostage until the protection of the Prunus on Mount Cameroon is guaranteed? A Blaikie P 1995 Understanding environmental issues in Morse
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I am indebted to Bianca Ambrose-Oji, Jacquie Burgess, knowledge construction in Marxism Antipode 27 12 – 48 Tim Forsyth, Philippe LeBillon, Maria Kaika and two anon- Chatelain C, Autet W and Brackman F 1999 Comparison of
ymous referees for comments on an earlier draft of this once and twice daily dosage forms of Pygeum africanum paper. Errors and opinions are the author’s responsibility.
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