Eli Terris studies African Locust Bean tree

Eli standing in front of an ALB treeEli Terris, a graduate student pursuing a Master’s of Environmental Management at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, was awarded a Lindsay Fellowship for Research in Africa by the MacMillan Center to study the social, economic and consumptive values of a disappearing tree among Rural Malians.

As a master’s student within Yale’s Forestry School, I have been studying a highly valued yet presumed to be disappearing tree Parkia biglobosa, also known as African Locust Bean (ALB), that grows across West/Central Africa. My research is based out of Mali in a rural 1,200 person village, Coulibalybougou, the same site I served in with the Peace Corps. The site is 5 hours from the nation’s capital, in the relatively verdant south.

Woman pounding ALB fruits to separate the seeds.ALB has many different “uses” such as: its roots, leaves and bark are processed into a medicine (treating UTIs and children’s headaches), its leaves and fruit are consumed as animal fodder, the fruits are consumed by people, and the seed pods are composted. ALB is consistently one of the most common parkland tree species in West Africa and grows within millions of acres of farmland across many nations. This thus absorbs massive quantities of carbon that lessens the effects climate change. Yet arguably the most important “use” of ALB is as a cooking spice called soumbala, processed from ALB seeds. Soumbala takes 1 week to prepare, through a subjectively grueling process involving 3 poundings, 3 boilings, and a couple nights of fermentation. Soumbala has huge economic value for some women, as women are almost exclusively involved in preparing and selling the good.

The ALB tree is clearly important, but in many parts of West Africa, ALB trees are disappearing—with growing African populations, and agricultural intensification typically assumed to be the perpetrators. Yet, in southern Mali, a part of the country with a vastly growing population and intensified agriculture, I had anecdotally recalled an abundance of this tree species. So, in some sense, I was hoping through this research to put more perspective into this seemingly incompatible notion. To put it more bluntly, I wanted to question/challenge frequent foreign narratives that put unjust blame on rural populations globally, viewing them as largely destructive; often as passive agents locked into Malthusian traps where growing masses necessitate degradation. Why do growing populations have to mean important species will vanish? People are able to manage land and plant trees, right? I wanted to look at the role of the species in everyday life, and see how/if at all people were actively managing ALB’s regeneration—and if there was a correlation between its uses in the community and its preservation.

Thus far, I’ve interviewed 23 people of the following demographics: young/middle-aged/older men and women, Islamic healers, hunters, a soumbala producer, and the president of the women’s group. 

I learned quickly, that ALB has social restrictions that forbid the species from being cut. Elders explained that the source of this restriction stems from colonialism, when the tree was coveted as a source of revenue and used to pay colonial taxes. The tree from then onward has been associated with wealth. As a young man, the now village chief was instructed by a fortune teller to plant trees of all kinds (including ALB) to secure his financial future. Now, many decades later, he personally pointed out to me all the adult ALB trees he planted. So, this poses a series of follow-up questions. How do you assess the alleged “demolition” of a tree species, if the ones surveyed are not “natural” (as in, those trees likely wouldn’t exist were it not for human’s management)? What is the baseline for comparing a change in species density? Should people really be labeled “destroyers” if a tree’s “uses” shifted over time, and thus lessened the importance of managing it sustainably?

Unanimously, interviewees agree that the population and agricultural production is on the rise within Coulibalybougou, as well as believe that the net number of trees within the nearby forest is decreasing. Yet, most all also agree that certain species (ALB included) are actually increasing. Preliminary forest inventories I conducted in plots within fallow lands support this notion of ALB having positively sustained regeneration. During the research, I have found people are doing more than just refraining from cutting ALB trees, individuals I talked to are planting the tree in fallow land, just as the village chief did so many decades ago. That practice, though by no means ubiquitous, is not showing any signs of stopping (ALB is 1 of only 2 indigenous tree species out of more than 100 people actively plant: the other being shea, used for shea butter).

The alternative cooking spice to soumbala is maggi cubes (foreign-made MSG flavoring cubes), and though younger women are cooking with it more and more, there is intense fear and skepticism of the product’s negative health impacts. People believe it has adverse effects on men’s sexual activity, genital complications among women, liver and salivary problems. This thus heightens an importance of ALB within the community. Furthermore, I’ve been seeing how soumbala is embedded into other cultural aspects of life, such as its use as a gift for funerals, weddings, baptisms. I’ve also explored it’s role in the local economy, for those women who market soumbala.

Throughout my interviews, I’ve examined other community-led initiatives that promote the preservation of the forest with little to no external oversight. Traditional hunters in rural Mali explained their long-standing role as the protecting “eyes” of the forest. When they witness a violation, the hunters counsel and even punish those guilty. They have vast networks of communication and cover extensive grounds. Furthermore, the women in Coulibalybougou have united in their stance against the selling of firewood, as a way of responding to the diminishing forest. These are just two examples, that highlight the larger theme I want to explore: that rural Malian populations should be seen as forest managers, willfully choosing to maintain and preserve highly valued and useful species (such as ALB). This all happens, in spite of the frequent “invisibility” of their practices often overlooked by development agents, policy makers, Western scientists and more.

The oversight and dismissal of Africans as land managers, seems almost insulting, considering the individuals I interviewed were able to list 60, 70, 80 (roughly 100 total) different tree species found within the forest. On top of that, these randomly selected interviewees know “uses” of each tree, and it was determined that all trees have known “uses” to the community. How is it possible that these extremely knowledgeable, adaptive land managers who have cultivated long-standing systems of preservation can be so quickly misunderstood and villainized for their choices of working the land and growing population?