For most who know it, shea butter evokes exuberant health, youthful skin, and perhaps a faint trace of connection to the African continent. At home in many a bazar in Europe, Asia, and America, shea (Vitellaria paradoxa, family Sapotaceae) is also widely consumed in its homeland for a variety of uses. Yes, for skin care, and also as a surprisingly delicious cooking oil added to flavor beans.
For the Acholi-Luo of Northern Uganda, shea—or moo yaa, which in their unique tonal language means “oil tree”—is also a sacred resource. Simple handmade extractions of the fruits’ fatty kernels have been used ceremonially, for example to anoint warriors before battle.
Now, this sacred resource is being devastated—an upheaval of an old order—for the high-quality cooking charcoal the trees provide.
In the midst of great social and environmental transformations, the Acholi people are the carriers of a rich lineage in plant lore and practical ecological knowledge. Despite a full generation of conflict that pulled a people from their landscape, plants are fundamental to continue to feed, heal, build, and cook in homes across this resilient region. Knowledge of plants, like so much traditional cultural knowledge, is threatened now more than ever. Sadly, in this the Acholi are not alone.
“The Pearl of Africa”
Zooming out a frame, we encounter a nation that can be traversed by road in a matter of hours. Small as it is, Uganda is home to disproportionate biodiversity. It is a country that includes Africa’s greatest lake, the source of the Nile, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. It is home to equatorial glaciers and over a thousand species of birds— over half of all the bird species found on the African continent. And it is a country blessed by the presence of many amazing trees.
Some you may well have heard of, like shea and tamarind, moringa and African mahogany. Others, no less ecologically and culturally noteworthy, sound unfamiliar to outsider ears. They are givers of medicine, of the air we breathe. The providers of fruit and shade, their discarded limbs are a source of vital fuelwood for cooking fires. And in the opening scenes of the new world wrought by climate change, the importance of trees hits closer to home than ever before.
Not only a land of many trees, Uganda is also the second most populous landlocked country in the world, a fact made more remarkable by the nation’s diminutive size. Growing population pressures, as well as a demographic shift toward cities and away from traditional lifestyles underscore the growing divide between a population and its natural resources. Around the world there are many root causes for deforestation. For the Acholi, like others in Uganda, a fundamental driving pressure on forests is the increased demand for fuelwood.
The trees that make fire well, whether as burnt sticks or processed to charcoal, are being lost at an astonishing rate. It is estimated that over a quarter of Uganda’s trees disappeared between 1990 and 2005. Since then, deforestation rates have continued at over 2% a year. Some estimates claim 80% destruction in the last five decades. Practically all studies agree that climate change will only exacerbate the effects of deforestation, with the worst consequences being felt by people with the least access to resources, financial and otherwise.
There are also reasons to be hopeful. And some of these reasons, curiously, are built on the very drivers of forest destruction.
What makes trees desirable to harvest also makes trees desirable to plant. Perhaps counter-intuitively, understanding the value that cut trees have to people is one of the first steps in incentivizing the trees’ replacement. Because we know we will need charcoal tomorrow, we plant trees today. The problem is the solution. The economic motors underlying destructive activities can be repurposed as a pragmatic impetus for reforestation.
But reforestation is a risky business. Like agriculture and all economic activities that depend directly on natural phenomena and processes, results can vary greatly due to climate inconsistencies. Would-be reforesters seek known quantities and well-established models for return on investment. For post-colonial Africa and most of the world this has meant that reforestation efforts are overwhelmingly focused on those few familiar (but in this context, non-native) tree species for which a dependable body of data from past experiences exists. In Northern Uganda this has meant pine, teak, and eucalyptus. Little else. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we proliferate known models because they are well known.
In many cases, what’s missing to encourage the planting of native trees is more experience. It’s a global issue: we need more documentation of viable agroforestry and reforestation systems to convincingly demonstrate that native species restoration is economical.
Lest we forget, the academic literature isn’t our only source of knowledge about how native trees grow. Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge is a vital resource being lost at a gut-wrenching rate. As Wade Davis points out, even the worst ecological indicators for mass extinction and species loss don’t compare to the current rate of cultural loss. In the case of the Acholi, traditional herbalists represent one of the last lines of defense against eroding cultural knowledge.
One group of such traditional healers, Mon Ma Ryek or Wise Women of Uganda, is opting to take great strides to demonstrate the value of native trees. Call it a forest for the trees—a reforestation effort that pursues biodiversity preservation as a practical approach to resource management.
For the women of Mon Ma Ryek, planting native trees means ensuring a source of valuable medicinal products only found in forests. And it means enjoying all the secondary benefits that come from planting multi-purpose trees—fruits, shade, moisture, and yes, firewood.
To help document and share the impact of the simple, powerful act of planting native trees, the Wise Women partnered with Wild Forests and Fauna, an organization dedicated to forest restoration. The first phase in this collaboration involved the identification of key species to emphasize. What follows is a brief description of a couple of these all-star trees. Even a summary glimpse can serve as a celebration of species vibrant with cultural resonance and ecological significance. Here’s to the trees of life. Here’s to their many gifts.
Tugu (Borassus aethiopum)
“Is there a problem with translation, or did that man just say that these trees were planted by elephants?” In all likelihood, yes. The towering Borassus palm can be seen dotting and dominating great stretches of African savannah, and in fact the presence of the palms were taken traditionally as an indicator of elephant migrations. Magnificent examples of Borassus can be seen in Murchison Falls National Park and throughout the northern Ugandan countryside.
To eat their sweet-smelling fruits, one pounds the fibery exterior analogous to a coconut’s coir. The comparison is a fair one— Borassus fruits are as big as some coconuts. Tugu (or tuku) as the fruit is called in Acholi is perhaps something of an acquired taste. One Ugandan friend mentioned that while he doesn’t enjoy eating tugu, he and others prize it for its scent and use the head-sized fruit as a natural potpourri in the kitchen. Slats of the palm’s trunk are used as a durable black timber, and long intact “pipes” of trunk with the pulpy heartwood removed are a preferred material for beehives.
“It is even so much better than the moo yaa, the shea butter.” That’s how Wise Women president Adoch Juliet described the oil from the nut kernels of to’o, known in English as desert date. A thorny tree that embodies the hardiness required for survival in the semi-arid north of Uganda, to’o (rhymes with the letter O) is also native to much of sub-Saharan Africa and has a list of local names as long as its list of uses.
Probably the most colorful of these is as fish poison (saponin in the roots and bark), and other uses include timber, tool handles, dyes, and excellent, almost smokeless firewood (are you noticing a theme?). The fruits indeed are vaguely reminiscent of dates, though more fibery and with a distinctive aftertaste, and curiously take a full year or more to mature. Leaves and shoots are fed to livestock, as is the seed meal leftover after oil extraction. Fruits are eaten by myriad birds and animals. Early botanists thought the fruits looked like acorns, and used the latter’s Greek name (Balanites) for the tree.