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Losing the golden tree to bush fires: The sorrows of shea nut workers

BY: Zadok Kwame Gyesi
Burnt shea trees along the Wulugu - Walewale road in the Northern Region.

Bush fires continue to destroy lives and property in the country. Their effects on the environment, health and socio-economic life of the people in the affected areas are incalculable.   

Bush fires have rendered many green vegetative and forest covers bare where even grasses struggle to survive.

The menace has become a yearly feature in many parts of the country, particularly in the savannah ecological zones, during dry seasons.  

Many sources, including activities of smokers, game hunters and arsonists have been identified as some of the causes of bush fires in the country. 

Although it is scientifically proven that trees including “shea trees” play a vital role in human survival by giving oxygen, some people do not see the need to allow these trees to keep their green leaves; they set them on fire.   

Concern 

Many cash crops including cocoa, cashew, mango and rubber have all suffered the effect of bush fires in many parts of the country. 

It must be placed on record that anytime the above-mentioned cash crops are destroyed through bush fires, it naturally becomes an issue of national concern due to the huge foreign exchange the country derives from them. 

However, unlike cocoa, cashew, rubber and mangoes, many shea trees are being destroyed through bush fires with impunity in most parts of the savannah ecological zones without any efforts to tackle the menace. 

The destruction of shea trees through bush fires has almost become an everyday activity in most parts of northern Ghana.

In northern Ghana, the shea tree is almost equivalent to gold particularly to the women population whose livelihoods depend on the plant.

It is sad, however, to mention that in spite of the importance of shea trees to the economy of the country, the shea trees are carelessly and conveniently destroyed on a daily basis. 

The value-chain economic activities of the shea tree provide direct and indirect employment for the majority of the women in the savannah ecological zones. 

The shea butter, a fatty extract from the seed of the shea tree, for instance, constitutes a key source of income for the local women. 

Destruction

In northern Ghana, the shea trees are not only destroyed through bush fires, some are cut down and burnt for charcoal, while others are used for firewood.

Some farmers also clear the shea trees to make way for the planting of other horticultural plants such as mangoes and cashew.   

The three regions in the north, comprising Upper East, Upper West and Northern, account for less than four per cent of the total national consumption of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). 

This simply implies that most of the people in these regions mainly rely on charcoal and firewood, which are mostly made from the shea trees, to cook.  

The Minister of Petroleum, Mr Emmanuel Armah-Kofi Buah,at a Consumer Week Celebration held at the Tamale Jubilee Park on Thursday, November 5, 2015, said “communities in these regions (Upper East, Upper West and Northern) largely depend on wood-fuel for cooking and account for only about three per cent of the national consumption of LPG”. 

According to him, the country annually burnt more than 13 million tons of firewood as fuel for domestic activities. 

Law 

Section (2) of PNDC Law 229 (Act 1990), which deals with the Control and Prevention of Bushfires, states that “a person starts a bushfire if an action of that person results in the uncontrolled burning of any farm, forest or grassland”.

The Act further states that “a person who contravenes or fails to comply with any provision of this Act (Act 229) commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of not less than two hundred and fifty penalty units and not more than one thousand penalty units or to a term of imprisonment or community labour not exceeding 12 months or to both the fine and the imprisonment or community labour and for a subsequent offence to a term of imprisonment or community labour not exceeding two years.

However, in spite of the bush fire law, the menace keeps occurring unabated.  

Distribution

The shea tree, formerly called butryospermum paradoxum and now called vitellaria paradoxa according to some research, is an indigenous and exclusive asset in West and Central Africa and particularly abundant in the Northern Savannah areas of the country. 

The shea tree thrives in 19 countries across the African continent including Benin, Ghana, Chad, Burkina Faso, Cameroun, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Zaire and Guinea. 

According to the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG, Bole, 2008), shea trees are found in large quantities in all the three northern regions covering an area of about 77,670 square kilometres in Western Dagomba, Southern Mamprusi, Western Gonja, Lawra, Tumu, Wa and Nanumba, with Eastern Gonja having the densest stands. 

Some sparse amount of the trees could be found in parts of Brong Ahafo, Ashanti, Eastern and Volta regions.

This, therefore, indicates that the country is endowed with an economic natural resource that could be adequately exploited and used as a vessel for substantial poverty reduction and socio-economic development, especially in northern Ghana.  

Maturity 

According to (Dalziel, 1937), the shea tree grows slowly from seeds, taking about 30 years to reach maturity. This suggests that when a shea tree is burnt down or destroyed, it will take more than two decades before we could have a replacement. 

A research conducted by the Shea Dealers Association in 2008 indicates that processing of shea nut and butter offer employment to approximately 85 per cent of the people of northern Ghana on a seasonal and part-time basis.

Economy

An article authored by the Ghana News Agency’s Paul Achonga Kwode on Thursday, October 14, 2010 with the headline: “Shea nut and poverty alleviation in northern Ghana”, quoted President John Dramani Mahama, the then Vice-President of Ghana, as having said that “more than 900,000 women in the three northern regions collect over 130,000 tonnes of dry nuts annually most of which are processed and used locally”. 

The article added that the industry also benefitted close to two million poor people, about 95 per cent of whom are rural households, though its full potentials were yet to be exploited. 

The shea industry also contributes about US$30 million as foreign exchange to the national economy.

According to Techno Serve Ghana (2004), Ghana has the potential to produce 90 per cent of the world’s shea nuts. However, the incidence of bush fires is likely to cripple the fortunes of the country in turning this golden tree into money. 

Solution

Since women and children are the ones basically engaged in the picking of shea nuts as well as its processing and marketing, protecting the trees from bush fires and other destructive activities would go a long way to contribute to the reduction of poverty in northern Ghana, particularly among the women population.