Learning Knowing World Trees
Desert Date - Kenya
Desert Date Trees are the Educators of Nature - Listen Well!
The Multi-Purpose Agroforestry Tree
Desert Date - Balanites aegyptiaca (Ng’oswet – Kalenjin, Kenya)
by Festus Kiplagat (video to the right)
Tree Grower | Forestry | Agroforestry | FMNR | Ark2030 | Cures4Forests | GPI2050
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Desert Date Story
I reminisce as a child, I herded sheep and enjoyed diverse fruits from the forest. Now I can’t find these plants anymore, they are disappearing fast. Communities have strong evidence of their value, and they may be contributing even more than we know, one of these species is the Desert date.
Admittedly, scraggly tree like Balanites are easy to miss. Observers may see the dry bush in which they grow as mere unproductive scrub. Nothing could be less true but it is a rich multipurpose agroforestry tree, a nitrogen fixer and integrates well with crops. It is a heavy seeder with both coppicing and pollarding qualities making it easier to replicate and regenerate.
The world does not eat enough fruit and vegetables, while at the same time an estimated 25% of the world’s land area is degraded. This issue is particularly acute in dry regions like the Sahel; an estimated 75% of land in Niger is degraded, according to a study of land degradation in seven African countries.
The challenge is complex, but there's good news: indigenous trees that are vital sources of nutrition and thrive in arid areas can help address both these crises.
The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 400g of fruit and vegetables per day to prevent diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and deficiencies of micronutrients like Vitamin A and zinc.
This tree’s fruit is a source of iron and calcium when dried. Fresh, it has proportionally as much vitamin C as an orange. New leaves are a nutrient-rich dry season vegetable. Extracts of the fruit and bark kill the hosts of Bilharzia and carriers of Guinea Worm. The tree can be regenerated by Farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), a method that nurtures living stumps. Seedlings and young trees need protection from fire and livestock.
“Famine Food” – Food and Fodder Bank
Clearly there is nothing niche or rare about this tree. It is part of the major players in food systems from Kenya, Somalia to Senegal, in the Miombo biome across Southern Africa, and even in the Near East and South Asia. This tree is so essential that in Senegal farmers are planting them as a key component for the Great Green Wall. Meanwhile, sale of their products brings income.
Governments and the international community have overlooked them, but this tree can help us achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Indigenous food trees are intrinsic to SDG 2: Zero Hunger, which aims to end all forms of hunger and malnutrition, SDG13: Climate Action and SDG 15: Life on Land, which aims to reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
Long harvested from the “wild”, they now need to be brought onto farms as a nature-based solution for the intertwined crises of climate, malnutrition, and biodiversity and ecosystem collapse.
Let’s make sure trees aren’t forgotten and are recognized for their contribution to diets. It is also the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Indigenous trees, especially those that provide food and are loved by communities, should play a central role.
Besides widely known pan-tropical trees like mango and papaya, a myriad of lesser-known indigenous trees makes a major contribution to diets. At my organization, we have opted to refer to them as “food and fodder” bank. This tree are also far more than "famine foods", a term often used by aid workers when they see displaced people collecting food from the wild, often leaves. Tree leaves may be resorted to when vulnerable and hungry populations are on the move. But they are also a routine part of the diets of millions, leaves are cooked with onion as a stew.
Rural people with settled lives also harvest “wild” food where the natural vegetation has not been pauperized. Communities in Uganda lamented that this nature’s supermarket is disappearing as trees are cleared for farming and charcoal.
Tropical tree-sourced foods are sometimes clustered as “lost, underutilized or neglected” because they are overlooked by governments and development agencies. But hundreds of millions depend upon them, and they have huge potential to contribute significantly to the availability of fruit and vegetables.
Fruit from the Balanites tree is the most frequently eaten fruit by women in Arid and semi-arid areas, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia daily. In fact, rural women across all agro-ecological zones in Zambia had eaten wild fruits more than twice as frequently as cultivated fruits in the previous seven days.
The leaves and pods are nutrient rich fodder for livestock especially during the dry season.
Given its usefulness and how much they show up in the research and in markets, it is baffling that so few policymakers and practitioners recognize the role of these trees.
It suffices to note that, owing to its usefulness, global nutrition bodies and national policies should document and acknowledge role it plays, and also given that they are resilient to drought and other stressors, it should be more prominent in restoration efforts too going forward.
Animals play a major role in propagation of this species as the pods are edible thus the dormancy is easily broken as it goes through the alimentary canal.
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