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Forests have traditionally been valued as a source of timber, pulp, and, more recently, fuel. All other products, regardless of their value to local people or the national economy, have been classified by foresters as “minor forest products”. Yet even this term (minor forest product) often refers only to those products for which there is an industrial market such as gums, resins and tannins. For rural West Africans from the forest region, the forests are valued for a vast array of products. They form an integral part of the household economy. Forests provide the resources for a multitude of products which feature in people’s day to day lives. The West African humid zone region is extremely diverse incorporating many different political and economic systems, cultures, histories, and land use practices. The forests (and fallow land areas) are as diverse as the ways in which people use them. Forests provide food, medicines, household equipment and building material, raw materials for processing enterprises, materials for agricultural and other production equipment, as well as products for cash sale. Forests and trees are also socially and culturally important, serving as temples, cultural symbols, social gathering places and locations for social rites such as initiation ceremonies. Forest products are used in support of other productive sectors such as agriculture, providing the materials used for making implements, harvest and market transportation equipment, crop storage containers, crop dryers as well as fuel used for crop processing.

Ceiba pentranda, the multi-purpose tree

The multitude of “minor” ways a single forest species may be used is well illustrated in an example from Ho, Ghana, where Ceiba pentandra’s fibrous fruit are used in medicines, domestically for pillow-making and commercially sold to help plug up holes in canoes; its seed oil is taken against rheumatism, is sold commercially for soap making and is used as a fire-lighter; its leaves are consumed in soups and also provide goat fodder; its ash provides a good mulch; the bark and stem are used as a medicinal mouthwash; the roots are used in the treatment of leprosy. A favoured mushroom grows at its base. It is also valued as a bee fodder tree (for honey production). Finally, it is a sacred tree; its leaves and bark are believed to expel evil spirits (Asamoah 1985).

This study examines all forest products, both tangible and intangible, that are garnered from forests by local people both for home consumption and sale. The study refers to them as non-timber forest products (NTFP). NTFPs are therefore defined as those forest products, including by-products such as bushmeat and mushrooms, that are not processed by large forest industries. The boundary between cultivated and uncultivated forest land is often not distinct in this ecological zone; as a result the use of fallow land and on-farm trees will also be considered. Forest product processing by households and small enterprises is examined.

Finally, the study examines the ways that increasing population pressure, changes in agricultural and hunting practices, and increasing commercialisation are affecting forest areas, their use and utility. More intensive forest management systems geared to meeting the needs of local people are required. Yet, little is known about how forest resources are currently used and valued locally, nor about the impact of forest decline on households in this region. This study begins to bridge the knowledge gap that currently exists.

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