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Africa Friday, 9 January, 2009, 13:18 GMT
Cameroon's pharmaceutical jungle

By Tim Whewell

Prunus africana is a rare tree growing in the jungles of Cameroon. It is used to make a drug used by millions of men to treat prostate problems. But whose tree is it? Tim Whewell investigates the battle being waged between conservationists, drug companies and villagers.

If you've ever imagined yourself as a European explorer coming ashore on the uncharted coast of Africa, you'll have no difficulty picturing the bay at Limbe at the foot of Mount Cameroon.

In places, dense forest still tumbles down to the very edge of the Atlantic breakers. Fishermen paddle their canoes out past a necklace of rocky islands overgrown with tangled vegetation.

Villagers in Mapanja note valuable trees and compile a management plan for their sustainability

Behind, swathed in rain-cloud, are the slopes of Mount Cameroon itself, an active volcano which at 13,435 feet is the highest peak in West Africa.

And for the last seven years the little town has been the base for another, equally ambitious social experiment.


The Mount Cameroon Project (MCP), funded partly by the British government's Department for International Development, and also by Germany's technical aid programme, aims to draw local villagers into the task of preserving the mountain's astonishing array of wildlife.

More than 40 plant species are thought to be unique to Mount Cameroon
The mountain is also home to rare birds, monkeys and forest elephants

The value of that may be obvious to zoologists and botanists. But persuading people of it is an uphill task in a desperately poor country like Cameroon, where villagers are used to treating the forest as an inexhaustible supply of food and income.

And yet, to my amazement, in the village of Mapanja, 800 feet up on Mount Cameroon, I heard the word "sustainability" on the lips of almost everyone I met. It's a concept they've learnt from the Mount Cameroon Project. And what's convinced them of the need to conserve as well as exploit is the prospect of earning more money eventually from one particular tree, which the villagers used to call "wotangue" in their own language, Bakweri, but which they now refer to, even among themselves, by the scientific name of prunus africana.

Prunus Africana

Cameroonians in a makeshift pub in Bakwoongo - where the prunus money has dried up

Prunus africana is the sole African relative of the flowering cherry and peach trees beloved of European gardeners. It grows only in high altitude rainforests, principally in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Madagascar, and Equatorial Guinea.

Its bark has long been used in Africa treat chest pains and malaria and (according to some) to enhance sexual performance in men. But the scramble for prunus began only after it was discovered to be a remedy for prostate enlargement, a condition that affects more than 50 per cent of all men over the age of 50 years.

The UK is one of the few European countries where prunus-based remedies are not widely distributed. But on the continent and in the United States, the market for them is estimated to be worth about 150m a year. Until recently, not much of that money was coming back to Mount Cameroon.

Standing up to big business

They were paying a small token amount to the village and then they were collecting the bark

William Mbanda, head of the prunus harvesters' union in Mapanja
The main exporter of prunus was Plantecam, a French company which ground the bark into powder in a factory at the foot of the mountain.

The union was formed with the encouragement of the MCP to win better terms from Plantecam. When more money started to roll in, villagers were able to replace their old thatched roofs with zinc sheeting. They part-funded a new water supply, and started building a meeting hall.

The purpose of the harvesters' union was also to police the forest against prunus poachers, and to ensure that only part of the bark was taken from each tree, so that it wouldn't die. But an inventory conducted by the conservationists revealed so many trees had already gone that prunus wouldn't survive as a commercial crop unless the tough new harvesting quotas were imposed.

Njasso is a villager who thinks that conservationists have overplayed their hand
Surprisingly, the government accepted the findings. But initially Plantecam didn't. "They fought," says James Acworth, Forest and Conservation Management Adviser at the MCP. "They said their own survival was more important than the trees."

Pierre Paris, deputy general manager of the French parent company, Groupe Fournier, rejects that. "We tried to develop a sustainable harvesting policy," he says, "and we want to comply with CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species." He points out, for example, that Plantecam was involved in attempts to domesticate prunus by distributing seedlings to villagers.

Around Mount Cameroon
Limbe, known first as Victoria, was founded in 1858 by British Baptist missionaries who wanted to create a self-governing haven for freed slaves
In the end, he believes, the quota had to come down because the Cameroonian authorities were unable to enforce good practice. "Despite our commitment with MINEF (the Ministry of the Environment) and MCP, an increasing number of illegal farmers harvested prunus and sold them to non-scrupulous competitors, and that was terrible."

The future of the prunus harvest

Many, including the chief of Mapanja, are confident about the future
Now, Plantecam has closed its factory in Cameroon and the government is currently not issuing any harvesting permits. Scattered around Mapanja are houses only half-finished before the money dried up. The Mount Cameroon Project is helping villagers apply for a permit on behalf of a new company they will own themselves. But the future's uncertain - no-one knows for sure how big a market there will be for sustainably-harvested prunus, which is bound to cost more than bark from countries with fewer regulations, such as Madagascar.

A few people in the villages believe the conservationists have overplayed their hand. "They did not wait for another company to enter before pushing these people (Plantecam) out," says Njasso, a prunus harvester from Bakwaongo. "You don't push the only one who is there."

Most villagers, however, are still confident and excited about the future, ready to tighten their belts in the short term in the prospect of controlling their own resources in the future, and James Acworth, who's been involved in all the battles on the Mountain, is proud of them.

"Other villages look at one another and see it's working and they're impressed," he says. "We stand back and let them do it on their own. The more villages that can stand up to big business there's some hope that that could become the norm rather than the exception."

See also:

07 Nov 08 | Country profiles
07 Nov 08 | Country profiles
03 Oct 00 | Africa
30 Sep 00 | Africa
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