- Despite the apparent generosity of shea butter products in markets and beauty counters around the world, a little-known threat to shea trees looms.
- In April, Ghana’s vice president said the threat to shea parks – the agricultural landscapes dotted with shea trees in grain fields – was a national priority.
- But pressures on land and gender roles are changing long-standing practices governing land use that have long favored valuable trees.
- The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Across the African savanna belt from Senegal to Ethiopia, threats to shea trees (Vitellaria paradoxa) – the source of shea butter – have become a regional environmental concern. At the local level, land struggles disrupt the social ties that have historically determined access to natural resources such as shea trees, forests and arable land. Poor farmers in urgent need of cash cut down shea trees and cut back fallow fields where shea regenerates. With the proliferation of shea butter products in beauty aisles around the world, the growing threat to shea trees remains unrecognized.
Cooking oil, skin moisturizer, hair conditioner, soap, medicines, and edible fruits are some of the many uses for shea (also called shea) in the savannah belt. Rural women harvest its nuts and process them into shea butter, an important source of income where there are few other options. Shea shares field space with staple food crops, providing ecosystem services of erosion control, groundwater recharge and leaf mulch.
Standing above a recently cut shea tree in a village west of Bamako, Mali, Musa Jara responds to my questioning gaze by saying that by cutting the shea tree he is claiming his right to the land on which it grows. . Cutting (or planting) a tree is a declaration of land security. Yes, it is against traditional values and his women are not happy with the fallen tree. Her action, however, is in response to an opportunity to help her family with a one-time land sale. The scene represents one of many threats to a savannah tree species deeply rooted in local cultures, ecologies and economies. Pressures to sell their inherited assets, especially natural resources, force poor people in the rural savannah to make decisions that threaten trees and disrupt their social bonds.
The local causes and consequences of the felling of shea trees can have repercussions on an international scale: market projections predict continued growth in exports of shea nuts and butter to Europe and North America, with new markets developing in East Asia over the next 5 years. Global demand for shea butter is driven by the value of shea butter as an edible fat that can be used in chocolate, as well as in skin, hair, and other personal care products. As most buttermaking in the African Savannah Belt takes place informally outside of record keeping, reliable production data is scarce. Clearly, however, the endangered conditions for shea trees are jeopardizing the global supply.
With its cultural heritage, role in local cuisines, women’s incomes, agroecology and the growing value of global trade, the loss of shea trees is alarming.
In April, Ghana’s Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia said the threat to shea parks – the agricultural landscapes dotted with shea trees in grain fields – was a national priority. Last year, Ugandan teacher and environmental activist Mustafa Gerima arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Program after traveling more than 650 kilometers from Kampala, Uganda, to raise awareness of the felling shea trees in northwestern Uganda where he lives. In Burkina Faso, during a 4-day advocacy campaign in July 2018, Korotoumou Ouédraogo spoke with local leaders of shea producing districts about the need to protect shea trees. Although cultural taboos and laws prohibit female circumcision, the practice has grown and is gaining more and more attention.
Why, with its multiple values, is shea under threat?
Local conditions differ, but the trends are clear. In the village of Mr. Jara, where women draw water from wells and where houses are not connected to the electricity grid, salaried residents of Bamako offer the equivalent of thousands of dollars for the land. They want to build second homes outside the congested and growing urban area. Like generations before them, Mr. Jara and his fellow citizens live on land acquired through their ancestral social ties. Most rural residents do not own or buy land and do not hold title to property. On the contrary, they cultivate and live on land they have inherited. Customary rules and belief systems governing access to fields, forests and trees often prioritize those descended from early settlers. Until recently, no real estate market existed.
Due to their multiple uses, farmers have long kept shea trees in their grain fields. However, men and women farmers have different decision-making powers at the household level. Throughout the shea region, women are the main collectors of shea nuts and producers of shea butter which is a source of their income. Men, however, assert the primary decision-making over land use and tree felling. If Mr. Jara sells land, thereby ending his social ties, he will decide how to spend the big money. When his wives make shea butter, they decide how to use the relatively meager income.
Pressures on land are changing long-standing practices governing land use. Shea trees reproduce naturally during fallow periods, when no cultivation takes place. As the rural population increases, the fallow period decreases as the area is used for crops. Without young trees, shea stands age and end up producing less. Efforts to produce higher yields of grains and other crops encouraged mechanization with tractors and ox-drawn plows. However, with mechanized tillage, trees in fields can be a nuisance and take up space where government-promoted cash crops such as cotton could grow.
The gender dimension is crucial. Mechanization and sale of land in the urban peripheries are usually the responsibility of men, as are the final decisions about household use of fields and tree felling. In Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, the increase in global demand – and therefore the price – for cashews has put cashew trees in competition with shea nuts. Mango also competes with shea, as does jatropha during the 2007-8 biofuel bubble. Women benefit most directly from shea and other natural trees like born (Parkia biglobosa) and the baobab, and the men of the planted orchards like the cashew nut, the mango and the jatropha.
Across the region, men cut down shea trees for charcoal making, a quick source of money to pay for immediate expenses such as a sick family member, school expenses, or debt. It was the charcoal of cut shea trees replacing the sustainable production of butter that inspired Mr. Gerima’s long trek to Nairobi.
Calls to protect shea trees and improve the income generation potential of rural African women must be heeded. In January at the University of Peleforo Gon Coulibaly in Korhogo, Côte d’Ivoire, Professor Nafan Diarrassouba led a 3-day workshop on grafting shea trees. Prof. Diarrassouba’s research aims to improve shea nut yields. Such domestication of shea could further distance the tree from its traditional cultural and ecological contexts; However, it could also lead to higher nut yields in economies increasingly integrated into the market of rural African communities where the tree grows.
The Global Shea Alliance, an international non-profit organization, promotes sustainability and market opportunities. It is made up of women’s groups, retailers and NGOs from over 30 producing and consuming countries. To increase its value, shea butter can be certified organic, fair trade and non-GMO. Shea butter could also potentially benefit from geographical indications which recognize the techniques of the regional heritage of women in the manufacture of butter. These efforts could greatly benefit rural women producers and protect trees.
African farmers have managed shea parks for centuries, integrating the tree into their livelihood strategies. In fact, recent archaeological evidence from Burkina Faso shows cultural use of shea for nearly 2,000 years. A Bamanan proverb from Mali reveals the value of the tree: “If you start cutting down trees for a field by cutting down a shea tree, all other tree species should be afraid. Their fear is due to the fact that shea is so precious that if it is cut first, all other trees are surely doomed. No tree is as valuable as a shea tree! More generally, if you destroy the most valuable thing, then everything else doesn’t stand a chance.
Agrarian change with increasingly monetized values for natural resources like shea trees and the land on which they grow leads to paradoxes like that of the Jara household. Associated with poverty, how can farmers maintain the web of socio-ecological relationships that created and sustained the shea agro-ecosystem? Pressures beyond shea parks are forcing farmers to make unlikely decisions like cutting down multipurpose trees. As a result, women farmers risk losing a source of income and ecosystems collapse. Global industries that buy shea nuts and butter have the opportunity and obligation to support women at the base of the shea butter value chain.
Larry Becker is a professor of geography at Oregon State University, Corvallis, and has lived and worked in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali where he conducted research on agricultural systems, land-use change and the rice value chain. .
 N’i ye foro yiri tikè daminè si sun na, yiri tòw bèè siran. The Global Shea Alliance includes a similar version of this proverb on its website.