Across the African savanna belt from Senegal to Ethiopia, threats to shea trees (Vitellaria paradoxa) — the source of shea butter — have become a regional environmental concern. At the local level, land struggles disrupt social ties that have historically determined access to natural resources like shea trees, forests, and arable land. Poor farmers urgently in need of cash are cutting shea trees and reducing the fallow fields where shea regenerates. With the proliferation of shea butter products on beauty aisles globally, the growing threat to shea trees remains little known.

Cooking oil, skin moistener, hair conditioner, soap, medicine, and edible fruit are among the many uses of shea (also called karité) in the savanna belt. Rural women collect its nuts and process them to make shea butter, a significant source of income where there are few other options. The shea tree shares field space with staple food crops, providing ecosystem services of erosion control, groundwater recharge, and leaf mulch.

Standing over a recently cut shea tree in a village west of Bamako, Mali, Musa Jara responds to my questioning look by saying that in cutting the shea he is asserting his right to the land on which it grows. Cutting (or planting) a tree is a statement of secure land tenure. Yes—It’s against the traditional values and his wives are not happy with the fallen tree. His action, though, is in response to an opportunity to help his family with a one-time sale of land. The scene represents one of several threats to a savanna tree species deeply embedded in local cultures, ecologies, and economies. Pressures to sell their inherited assets — notably natural resources — force poor rural savanna residents to make decisions that threaten the trees and disrupt their social ties.

The local causes and consequences of felling shea trees can reverberate internationally: market projections predict continued growth in exports of shea nuts and butter to Europe and North America, with new markets developing in East Asia over the next 5 years. Global demand for shea butter is driven by shea butter’s value as an edible fat that can be used in chocolate, as well as in skin, hair, and other personal care products. With most butter-making in Africa’s savanna belt taking place informally outside of record-keeping, reliable production data are scarce. Clearly, though, imperiled conditions for shea trees jeopardize global supply.

With its cultural heritage, role in local cuisines, women’s income, agroecology, and growing global trade value, the loss of shea trees is alarming.

In April, the Vice President of Ghana Mahamudu Bawumia declared the threat to shea parklands—the agricultural landscapes dotted with shea trees in grain fields—a national priority. Last year, Ugandan school teacher and environmental activist Mustafa Gerima arrived in Nairobi, Kenya at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme after walking over 650 kilometers from Kampala, Uganda to raise awareness of the felling of shea trees in northwestern Uganda where he lives. In Burkina Faso, during a 4-day advocacy campaign in July 2018, Korotoumou Ouédraogo spoke with local leaders in shea-growing districts of the need to protect shea trees. Although cultural taboos and laws forbid cutting, the practice has grown and is drawing more attention.

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