When asked whether the wild-harvesting of indigenous plants in Africa is sustainable, Gus always turns the question on its head. Here’s how he explains it:
Plant harvesting is fundamentally sustainable, because plants regrow. So there’s no inherent reason why using plants should be a bad thing. In fact, quite the opposite. Using plants is a good thing, because it gives them a direct value.
In Africa the main driver of plant biodiversity loss is agricultural conversion. Native vegetation is cleared to make way for arable fields, usually growing crops imported from other parts of the world and often in a monocultural system, requiring heavy use of pesticides and herbicides to make it viable.
The reason this happens is because farmers need to earn cash, and while growing a cash crop (which involves clearing a field of its existing vegetation, planting a crop, keeping it clear of weeds and pests throughout its growing period, harvesting it when ripe, processing it and then selling it) is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy way to earn a living, it is at least somewhat predictable. In most African countries there is a fairly stable market for staple agricultural commodities, and farmers know that if they invest x amount of money and y amount of labour into growing their crops, they will very likely earn z amount of cash at the end of it. Assuming, of course, that the rains come when they’re supposed to and sun shines when it should do (both far from guaranteed in these days of changing climatic conditions).
It would, of course, be much easier to leave their fields untouched, with the native vegetation still standing, and then simply come and harvest nature’s bounty at different times of year, without having to do all that hard work. Fruits, nuts, leafy vegetables, mushrooms, edible tubers, medicinal plants, firewood, construction timber, reeds for basketry, the list goes on. But in most African countries, even though these are all products with a rich history of traditional use, there are few formal markets for them, and limited and unpredictable opportunities for farmers to earn cash. And so, as the human population rises and there are more and mouths to feed, there is a corresponding demand to convert the remaining areas of natural vegetation into cropland.
And yet, on every count except money, managing native vegetation is better than clearing it to grow crops. It’s less effort, it’s more drought-tolerant and resilient, it provides a much wider range of products, it doesn’t need any expensive (and damaging) pesticides or herbicides, no fertilizer, no land preparation. It maintains habitat for wildlife, provides a range of beneficial ecosystem services and contributes on so many levels to healthier and happier societies. But, and this is the heart of the problem, if it doesn’t contribute cash into the household, people will inevitably choose arable cultivation over wild-harvesting.
Resolving this conundrum is essentially Gus’ life mission. He believes that the survival of Africa’s plant biodiversity depends on being able to use those plants to generate cash for rural people. If formal, predictable and reliable markets can be developed for products that are wild-harvested, then (and only then) will it become a rational economic decision for rural people to retain and manage their existing vegetation rather than clear it for arable agriculture.