Shea nut processing in Burkina Faso. CIFOR/Ollivier Girard

Not for sharing? Renegotiating shea tree tenure in Burkina Faso

Competing for land

NAIROBI (Landscape News) — If I say “shea,” what springs to mind?

Chances are it conjures up images of luxurious body butters and lip balms; maybe even an association with West African women, wild harvesting and ethical trade.

These images aren’t wrong; but they are incomplete. We’re much less likely to associate shea with sugary corner-store staples like Kit Kat and Milky Way chocolate bars. But the majority of shea butter exports – around 90 percent – are actually destined for large-scale, big-brand chocolate production

In the early 2000s, legislative reforms in a number of regions allowed chocolate producers to substitute up to 5 percent of the cocoa butter in their products with “cocoa butter equivalents” (CBE). Shea proved a popular alternative: it’s much cheaper than cocoa butter, and it has a range of other useful properties such as inhibiting “fat bloom” (the white mould that appears on chocolate as it ages), giving chocolate a higher melting point, and enhancing its “snap.”

Alongside this change in chocolate production, emerging economies such as Brazil, India, China and Russia have developed a serious taste for the stuff. As a result, international demand for shea has skyrocketed, and the product has been propelled full-tilt into the era of globalization: three transnational corporations now account for an estimated 95 percent of exports.

Shea is not a new commodity by any means: it’s been traded within West Africa for at least 200 years, where it’s used in cosmetics and cooking. The butter comes from the kernels inside the elliptical brown nuts of the shea tree, which grows wild across the semi-arid Sudano-Sahelian zone. Until recently, the kernels have been considered a communal resource, which women traditionally collect during the rainy season. Boiled or smoked, the nuts can keep for up to a year, so they’ve historically provided women with a reliable year-round source of income by selling in local periodic markets.

The resource has a reputation for abundance. In western Burkina Faso, shea is the most common parkland tree, and it’s likely that two or three decades ago, “there was enough shea to satisfy everybody’s needs,” say the authors of an article published last year in the Journal of Agrarian Change, which explores tree tenure renegotiations in the area.

But in the context of increasing globalization, as well as growing internal migration as climate change and desertification pushes populations south, shea is no longer so easy to obtain, and notions of ownership and access to the trees are changing as a result.

Andrew Wardell, a co-author of the study and Senior Research Associate at the Center for International Forest Research (CIFOR), spoke to us about these shifts as he prepared to travel to Nairobi for the Global Landscapes Forum, where he’ll present the findings as part of a panel “Rights, Access and Values: Trees in Shifting Economic and Political contexts – New insights from sub-Saharan Africa,” co-hosted by the CGIAR Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) and CGIAR People, Institutions and Markets (PIM) research programs. The panel is to co-chaired by Frank Place, PIM and Esther Mwangi, CIFOR/FTA with additional speakers from Ghana (Albert Katako – Civic Response), Uganda (Concepta Mukasa – Association of Uganda Professional Women in Agriculture and Environment) and Kenya (Ben Chikamai – NGARA),


Customarily in western Burkina Faso, individuals called “diatigui” – who are usually descendants of the first settlers in that particular community – hold authority to allocate rights to land or trees. However, it is only in recent times that they have used this authority to prevent others from harvesting shea. “When we arrived, the diatigui mentioned nothing about whether we had the right to collect shea or not,” explained one migrant farmer in the village of Dimolo. “But now, the diatigui no longer lets us collect shea.” As such, “rights to trees are becoming increasingly privatized,” says Wardell.

However, newer migrants (referred to here as “latecomers”) are not rendered completely powerless, say the co-authors. On the contrary, they’re using various strategies to obtain the valuable shea nuts – such as theft, which has become increasingly common in this context, says Wardell. “And that reflects a slow decline in the influence of many of the customary institutions that relate to access to land or access to trees,” he says. Old rules are no longer respected in this new, highly competitive context: as a result, women of both diatigui and latecomer families are forced to get up earlier and earlier, in order to collect the ripe shea fruit before it’s claimed by someone else.


With shea access and ownership “up for grabs,” competing narratives jostle for primacy. The trees grow wild, but farmers select, save and protect them on their lands, so the convention of claiming tenure over the trees that one has planted – which is widespread across much of the African continent – does not hold sway. This then raises a number of possibilities: “Does a shea tree belong to the family who first selected and saved the shea tree, or to the family who protected and managed it afterwards?” ask the authors. “Or does the shea tree belong to the wild tree category, in which case, access to the tree is closely linked to access to land?”

The researchers found that “first-comers” generally try to link access to shea trees with access to land, which they control. One latecomer in Denkoro village told them that “shea trees on the land given to us [by first comers] do not belong to us. [The diatigui] says that when we came from Ouahigouya we didn’t bring shea trees with us. So [the diatigui] comes to collect shea fruits in our fields.”

Latecomers, for their part, may try to claim access by virtue of their labour investment, such as through clearing and maintaining the land around the trees. Or, they emphasize shea’s wild nature: “In my opinion, shea trees are not planted. They are natural,” said one latecomer in Denkoro. “So they can’t be owned by the diatigui.”


The controversy is actually about more than shea, say the authors: shea tree tenure is linked “inextricably” with land tenure, so “strategies to gain or maintain access to shea can be seen as part of wider strategies to gain or maintain access to land in general.” When women collect shea from a particular tree, they are making a statement about their family’s ownership of the land that the shea stands on, and the authors postulate that “men on both sides exploit these lightly veiled conflicts concerning shea… to compete for land tenure.”

But men are also gaining “growing influence in what has historically always been a value chain that’s been controlled and managed by women,” says Wardell. As the value of the nuts rises, men increasingly claim ownership of the trees growing in their fields, and may claim income from the nuts for themselves. There are also fewer communal land areas where access to shea is open to all, so the resource’s role as a reliable income source for women seems to be steadily eroding.

As such, rising prices for shea do not necessarily benefit everyone in the areas in which they grow, and they could “actually lead to further social differentiation,” says Wardell. Non-timber forest products like shea are often understood as equitable sources of revenue and “safety nets” for community members. However, in light of the case of shea, this notion “should be nuanced by a more thorough understanding of social relationships and power relationships that mediate access,” say the article’s co-authors.

To learn more about the critical, contentious and evolving issue of tree tenure, join Andrew Wardell and other experts for the discussion forumRights, Access and Values: Trees in Shifting Economic and Political contexts – New insights from sub-Saharan Africa” on Wed. Aug. 29 at 17:45 Nairobi time (GMT+2). For more information, please contact

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best-of-2018Burkina FasoforestsGLFNairobi2018governanceland tenurelandscapesrestorationrightssheashea nuts



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