Trees: Crops or Not?

Watering young neem trees

Agroforestry Peace Corps volunteers in northern Cameroon are supposed to be fighting deforestation and desertification by working with local communities to establish small tree nurseries and forests in their villages.  So what to grow?  Fruit trees and some nitrogenous species were popular.  Most of the communities that I worked with, however, wanted trees that would grow rapidly to produce wood for firewood.  Because most people in this region (the Extreme North Province) cook over a fire wood is a pressing need every day.  So what grows the fastest, doesn’t get eaten and withstands the area’s blistering heat?  After many futile attempts at growing acacias and other native trees, Neem (Azadirachta indica) won out.  As you can probably tell from its Latin name this was not a native species.  I was torn, is it better to plant trees that grow quickly and provide much needed wood, or is it better to plant slower-growing native trees?  I struggled with this question quite a bit because my undergraduate thesis was on invasive plant species in the northeast US.  I was well aware of what damage non-native species could do.  I decided however, that these trees were more like crops, being grown for immediate and frequent use, rather than any kind of attempt at creating a “natural” or “native” forest.  I am still not sure if I’m right about that though. 

Posted by Alice on October 31st, 2008 • • 3 comments

3 Responses to 'Trees: Crops or Not?'

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  1. Brian said, on October 31st, 2008 at 11:22 am

    I really enjoyed this post. Isn’t it fascination how the words we use have such power over our ethical logic? As soon as you looked at the neem stand as field rather than forest, your longstanding judgments suddenly needed to be reconsidered.

    The migration of species from one place to another has always had vast effects on human societies and the natural world, and we are all bombarded with new headlines about such rapid transformation abound in the world today. Here you open the debate the possibility that we need not judge our role in the movement of species uniformly. And a broader debate requires an expanded vocabulary. I think it’s useful to delineate between non-native and invasive. After all, the majority of the former depend on us to disturb an existing ecosystem and keep close to home (kudzu on southern roadsides and fields, dandelions in our backyards). To spend our time and money on them is to chase a particular dream of what natural looks like, and—as you beautifully illustrated—is rooted in an ethical logic that might require us to uprooted our tomatoes and turn exterminate our dogs and cats. Let’s not mix them up with those species, though propagated by our boats and jets (and ideas about what belongs where!), wedge their own way in to existing ecosystems—think Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. (I don’t think it’s insignificant that non-native, exotic, foreign, and alien all give us the willies because of their association with the recurrent xenophobia and nativism in human history, and telling that we have no broad agreement on when a non-native species gets its citizenship papers.)

    You might enjoy the feature on the UNDP’s Gaviotas Village from the October 17th episode of PRI’s Living on Earth. Planting pine s for harvesting resin on their sandy (blown-out, I suspect) soils precipitated the succession to Amazon species that had been absent for centuries, and now they’re having lots of luck farming the polyculture. It’s available for free on iTunes or you can read the transcript here:

  2. driftwood said, on October 31st, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Great post and comment. After reading the Alice’s post I’d been puzzling over the distinction between invasive and non-native and I think Brian has shed a lot of light on that problem and on the language we use to address it. Thanks!

  3. Tim said, on October 31st, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    (To be an enviro-stickler, exotic/non-native:invasive :: marmite:marinara. They’re both from outside the U.S., but only one’s really caught on.)