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Free lunch, in the shade of a marula tree

When the marula fruit falls to the ground in mid-January, it turns yellow, signaling the beginning of traditional beer making season in this part of eastern South Africa. The marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra) dominates the rolling communal pastures and family courtyards in Bushbuckridge, a rural municipality in the province of Mpumalanga, near Kruger National Park.

In a landscape where most of the bush has long been cleared for timber, firewood or farmland, the marula’s survival is a function of its special status and multiple uses: the large tree (7 to 11 meters tall) provides shade, nutritious fruits and nuts, medicinal bark and cultural benefits. Indeed, it is explicitly conserved because of its value to people.

A visit to Bushbuckridge in December 2011, in the wake of the Durban UNFCCC CoP 17, highlighted the importance of such trees in providing ‘free’ goods and services to poor farmers. 

  • Food: A marula tree produces on average 1,400 kg of fruit. The fruit juice (rich in vitamin C) and nutritious kernels (which taste like pine nuts) supplement meals in an area where rainfed crops are prone to failure.  
  • Cash income: About 4,200 women coordinate the harvest and nut cracking of marula nuts for oil production in 42 villages in the Bushbuckridge area. These women, organized in formal cooperatives, are business partners of Marula Natural Products – not employees. (The business, which commercializes the cooking oil, is a creation of the National Union of Mine Workers’ project development branch.) Because the fruit has to be picked out of the grass by hand, and the cracking of the nut requires human dexterity that a blunt machine can’t match, the marula supply chain is very labor intensive. Six hours of labor provide about 1 kg of kernels. 1 kg in turn, fetches about 36 South African Rand (or 4.5 USD). 
  • The bucket of kernels pictured below weighs 19 kg and represents about 14 days of work. Anna Makhubele will sell these nuts, which she cracked using a carefully calibrated blow from a hammer, to buy commercial feed for her cows or hire a tractor to plow her field. Other women use the cash to pay for food, health services and their children's school fees.
  • Firewood: Although the area is connected to the electric grid, most households still depend heavily on firewood for cooking. The marula tree is not always spared in this search for free fuel. Male marula trees, which are perceived as being less valuable than the fruit-bearing females, are particularly at risk. (In fact, a declining male population threatens pollination and therefore fruit production too.) “A long time ago we would find dry, dead wood in the bush,” said Aaron Mambane, project manager at Marula Natural Products. “Today people are forced to cut and strip living trees. At the end of the day, we may face the nice marula tree and chop its branches, hoping they will grow back again. But we are undercutting our own livelihood.”
  • Social capital: Marula juice is traditionally buried in the ground in clay pots in the ash heap of a family yard to achieve first grade fermentation that turns the juice into a kind of beer. The beer is shared with male family members and neighbors on special occasions. Although Nomsa Mkansi, 48 (pictured below in a purple shirt), lost her husband to AIDS six years ago, she still brews the beer as a kind of insurance, she explained, “so my neighbors will come and save me if they hear me scream at night."

Outside localized beer brewing areas, consumers are increasingly familiar with marula because of the success of “Amarula,” an internationally-traded liqueur that is derived from the fruit and produced by Distell, a large South African company. That commercialization has generated cash incomes in an area where poverty and unemployment are high. But the transition from a free commodity to a market good is not without its perils.

Sheona Shackleton, a scientist at Rhodes University in South Africa who has written extensively about marula and other Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP), has found evidence that marula reinforces family relations and cements urban-rural linkages when family members return from distant towns for the beer drinking season. That social capital in turn represents “an important safety net in times of hardship” she and co-authors wrote in a journal article in 2009 (‘Livelihood trade-offs in the commercialization of multiple-use NTFP: Lessons from marula (Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra) in southern Africa’). Well-intended efforts to scale up the commercialization of marula products for poverty alleviation could end up excluding poor women who depend on this social capital the most, the authors cautioned. 
The marula tree is widely distributed in the miombo woodlands which are the focus of a recently published PROFOR study on policies, incentives and options for managing the miombo in ways which benefit the rural poor.

Marula trees dominate many courtyards, providing shade, fruit and other services

Cracking nuts to extract kernels is very labor intensive

19 kg of marula kernels represent about 14 days of workMarula branches used as firewood for cooking

Nomsa, a 48 year old widow, brews beer as a kind of social insurance


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