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Conserving wild plants in West Africa

Baobab trees help to improve soil quality and reduce erosion (Moctar Sacandé)
Baobab trees help to improve soil quality and reduce erosion
Moctar Sacandé

Famous for their unusual shape, baobabs, or 'upside down trees', are able to endure the harsh conditions of the semi-arid grasslands and savannas of the Sahel by storing up to 120,000 litres of water within their thick trunks. This useful tree is also highly valued by local communities: the bark is used for fibre and medicines, the leaves are used to make soup, and the fruit (known as sour gourd or monkey bread) is highly nutritious. But prolonged droughts, bush-fires and over-exploitation across the region have led to a depletion of baobabs and other useful plants.

In the Sahelian regions of Burkina Faso and Mali, safeguarding wild species by increasing the ex situ conservation capacity of national partners and helping local communities sustainably use and propagate them, is one of the major objectives of the Millennium Seed Bank partnership (MSBP). After selecting particular wild species that they would like to cultivate, communities are trained in specific techniques needed to promote germination, such as breaking seed coats, and how to tend the seedlings. The seedlings are then planted on farms and in home gardens, protecting the species from over-exploitation in the wild.

Making a difference

At Sikasso, in Mali, scientists have been trained in seed processing (Moctar Sacandé)
At Sikasso, in Mali, scientists have been trained in seed processing
Moctar Sacandé

Tree species such as acacia, baobab, and nere (Parkia biglobosa) are amongst those selected by farmers to improve the quality of the soil and reduce erosion. Trees also provide non-timber forest products including fruits and fodder. "We don't need to demonstrate the benefits of planting trees," explains Moctar Sacandé, MSBP international coordinator. "The communities already know the benefits. We are just providing them with a sustainable supply of good quality seeds and planting materials. This means that farmers don't have to rely on natural regeneration." The seed collections are also being used to improve nutrition by encouraging cultivation of wild food and fruit trees.

In Burkina Faso, the MSBP has helped to support the Centre National de Semences Forestieres (CNSF) in its activities. By planting tall grasses, such as Andropogon gayanus, which reduce water runoff and prevent soil erosion, CNSF is helping farmers rehabilitate their soil and restore the Sahel. The grass can also be harvested for thatch and fodder. The initiative has been so successful that both the Burkina Ministries of Environment and Agriculture are now promoting and sponsoring CNSF to extend their work in this area.

Working in partnership

From collecting seeds in the field, to seed storage, germination, and data management, scientists at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have trained scientists from CNSF and Mali's Centre Regional de Recherche Agronomique (CRRA Sikasso/IER) in all aspects of seed conservation. "Training is fundamental. Things can only change if you have knowledge, and knowledge comes through training. I can really see the difference it is making," Sacandé observes. Kew scientists have also helped to design country-priority seed research and long-term conservation programmes in both countries. As a result of this partnership, Kew was also able to help establish Mali's first seed bank.

According to Sacandé, collaboration between Burkina Faso and Mali has been very successful. By sharing information and conducting joint collecting expeditions, the two countries have avoided duplicating collections. A proportion of all Mali collections are also stored at CNSF in trust, which helps to spread the risks of losing valuable seed material. As a result of this collaboration, almost 2,000 wild species have been collected and banked.

Meeting a need

Now established as specialist centres, the seed banks in Burkina and Mali are able to cope with growing demands from government ministries for native grass seeds in their attempt to combat desertification and "re-green" the Sahel. "The governments have endorsed the programme and the policy of using local species has really been strengthened," Sacandé states. "They are now more confident to use local species because they have the seed banks."

Cirilus is just one of the useful species being propagated in Mali (Moctar Sacandé)
Cirilus is just one of the useful species being propagated in Mali
Moctar Sacandé

As demand for seeds grows, CNSF has set itself the target of producing 1 million seedlings in 2010, using 100 useful species that are most in demand from farmers, traditional healers and urban communities. And in Timbuktu, in Mali, the project is targeting species that are more suited to the most arid regions in order to help communities to better cope with climate change.

"Addressing the demands and needs of communities is the focus of the programme," Sacandé concludes. "By banking more species and learning how to regenerate them we will be really prepared to respond to climate change."

Date published: March 2010


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