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U.S. guitar firm tunes business to protect Cameroon ebony

by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 2 July 2019 06:00 GMT

A worker tends to ebony seedlings at a nursery run by Crelicam, a wood supplier co-owned by U.S. firm Taylor Guitars, in Cameroon, June 1, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

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Companies that use hardwoods grown in Cameroon are teaming up with the government and communities to replant depleted forests

By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

YAOUNDE, July 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Companies that use wood grown in Cameroon - from makers of guitars to electricity poles - are helping revitalise endangered tree species to better sustain their businesses and bolster the fight against climate change.

The firms have teamed up with the government and villagers in public-private partnerships to restore forests because it makes sense for both their profits and the planet, they said.

Barbara Wight, chief financial officer for Yaounde-based Crelicam, an internationally owned supplier of Cameroonian ebony for musical instruments, said forests were crucial for the future of all who depend on their wood and other natural assets.

"Working with the government and the local communities to protect these resources is important," she said in an interview in Yaounde.

Two decades ago, Cameroon's East and South regions were covered in verdant hardwood trees such as ebony, sapele and African cherry, but that is no longer the case, said Martin Tchamba, head of the forestry department at Cameroon's University of Dschang.

High demand for wooden electricity poles, medicinal trees, furniture, specialist guitars and other equipment has depleted most of these hardwoods to the point that they have become endangered, he said.

"There is an urgent need to depart from the unsustainable practice of felling trees without replacing them," said Tchamba. "Tree restoration could help drive sustainable forest management."

Involving companies in such efforts could herald a transformation in the economic model of exploiting natural resources without taking care of the environment, he added.

Crelicam, which is co-owned by two foreign companies – U.S.-based Taylor Guitars and Spain-based Madinter, which supplies wood for instruments - is one of the firms blazing a trail in safeguarding the ebony tree.

The ebony project, which began in 2016, is part of Cameroon's sustainable forestry initiative, one of the biggest such projects in the forest-rich Congo Basin, home to the world's second-largest tropical rainforest.

Other companies replanting hardwood trees in Cameroon include Plantecam, a pharmaceutical company that uses African cherry to make medicines for prostate cancer.

The National Forestry Development Agency (ANAFOR), a government-owned organisation that processes timber for use in Cameroon and for export, is also working with local councils and private sector as part of the country's sustainable forestry initiative, which began in 2012.

Trees are planted at the Dja Rainforest Reserve southeast of Yaounde, under an ebony restoration project backed by U.S. firm Taylor Guitars which co-owns Cameroon-based wood Crelicam, in Cameroon, May 20, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Elias Ntungwe Ngalame


Taylor Guitars funds and works with the state and the Congo Basin Institute on the ebony restoration project which is also part of a U.N-backed programme to reduce planet-warming emissions from deforestation in Cameroon's south.

Wight said all ebony used by the guitar company to manufacture acoustic instruments comes from Cameroon's forests.

"Protecting this endangered species means protecting the music world... and (means) that the music coming from Cameroon's forest will continue," she said.

The longer-term aim is to secure a supply of the wood for the next 1,000 years or even longer, she added.

So far in 2019, the company has planted 3,000 ebony trees in four villages buffering the Dja Rainforest Reserve southeast of Yaounde.

The project, estimated to cost more than $1 million, aims to plant about 20,000 ebony trees by 2021.

It also includes research on how to grow the hardwood, as well as cultivating it in nurseries, cloning and grafting.

Another company working on tree species restoration is SITEP-CAM, an industrial firm based in Cameroon's Northwest Region which processes and markets electricity poles from eucalyptus trees.

SITEP-CAM CEO Clement Wara said it had provided a steady market for farmers growing eucalyptus since 2012 and given them nursery-grown seedlings to plant.

"We ensure that every eucalyptus tree cut and used for electricity poles is replaced," he said.

One eucalyptus electricity pole sells for 50,000 to 70,000 CFA francs ($87-$122) depending on the size, he noted.

In partnership with local councils in Oku, Ndu and Jakiri, more than 5,000 eucalyptus trees were replanted in each of the communities in 2016.

In 2018, about 1,500 eucalyptus trees were also planted with Bali and Kumbo councils. But due to concern over the amount of water the thirsty trees soak up, some local authorities have been reluctant to join the programme, Wara noted.


Tchamba said any effort to restore trees in a deforested landscape, "no matter how small", would help capture rain, conserve the soil, preserve biodiversity and reduce the effects of climate change by storing more carbon.

Some companies are also combining the planting of hardwood trees with local fruit and cocoa trees to encourage forest communities to participate, he noted.

Local people who have embraced the programmes told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they were upbeat about the results.

"We need to bring back our trees," said Engono Manguel Paul, a farmer in Djoum. "This is our life; this is the future of our children."

The cocoa and fruit tree seedlings, alongside fertilisers and pesticides received free from the companies, have allowed them to increase their yields and incomes, he added.

But Crelicam officials said getting the ebony restoration project off the ground had not been easy.

The company first had to learn how to grow ebony, which cannot be planted in rows using normal plantation methods but is more complex.

"Going through the authorisation process from the government, as well as convincing the local communities to be part of the process was also a big challenge," said Wight.

As ebony takes 60 to 70 years to mature, the villagers had little interest in a project that did not yield immediate financial benefits, she added.

"We had to introduce the cultivation of cocoa and fruit trees, inter-cropped with ebony, to permit them to generate income in a shorter period," she said.

Cameroon's environment minister, Pierre Hele, said the government would make it a policy to involve companies and forest communities in hardwood replanting programmes.

Researcher Tchamba urged more companies to team up with governments to protect at-risk tree species.

"We need more businesses to embrace this type of restoration initiative that enforces the principle of sustainability," he said.

($1 = 572.4800 CFA francs)

(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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