Baobab, the tragedy of the commons, and international trade

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Baobab_frucht_2Just recently, the EU approved the extract of the baobab fruit as an ingredient in foods in the European market. If you're like me, until today you had never heard of the boabab fruit (pictured right). According to the proprietor of the African Kitchen Gallery Restaurant in central London, "It is very nutritious, full of vitamin C and vitamin A. It has a very special flavour, but the closest I can get to it is jackfruit, which is like melon." That doesn't sound too bad to me.

Over at the Cheetah Index, blogger Chido Makunike has a mixed reaction to the EU's approval (Hat tip: Global Voices Online): 

There are many things about this developing export niche that will only become clear with time. I don’t think anyone yet knows what the potential size of this new export niche will be although the phrase “billion dollar industry” has been thrown about.

The baobab tree’s life cycle can be hundreds of years. It is obviously not cultivated, so the extract falls in the realm of naturally-growing, simply harvested “agro-forestry” products. Countries will have to take steps to ensure that the new interest in baobab will not cause over-exploitation or misuse; to make sure that harvesting is done in a sustainable way.   

But being a non-cultivated forest product, who “owns” the baobab fruit? Can anybody just take a truck into the forest, collect the fruit and export it? Obviously the sudden dramatic change in the economic importance of the baobab will open up many questions that will need regulation.

In other words, it looks like the baobab fruit could face the familiar economic problem of the tragedy of the commons. Without an obvious method to allocate property rights to the baobab tree, the fruit could be harvested in unsustainable quantities. And while Trade Theory 101 provides strong conclusions about the benefits of free trade, one has to wonder if in this particular case trade with the EU might exacerbate the tragedy of the commons, i.e. overharvesting of the boabab fruit.

There are solutions, however, that would both allow for the benefit of free trade and limit harvesting to a sustainable level. A blogger on African Agriculture discusses food processing in Tanzania:

Conserving indigenous and wild trees is now a viable economic venture in Tanzania...The fruit from these trees is processed into jams, juices and wines. So passionate are the farmers about conservation projects in the area that they have taken to policing the vast woodlands against loggers.

Mwadawa Luziga spends much of her day in the woodlands and she doesn’t regret it. She says it is now rare to see anyone destroying wild and indigenous trees because women conservation groups have taught the community at large that it is import to conserve such trees.


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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