Saving Africa’s forests, the ‘lungs of the world’

Forest conservation can help counter climate change
From Africa Renewal: 
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Agent of the World Wildlife Fund monitors commercial logging operations in Gabon to ensure minimal damage to the forest habitat Agent of the World Wildlife Fund monitors commercial logging operations in Gabon to ensure minimal damage to the forest habitat.
Photograph: Panos / Sven Torfinn

From the air the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) stretch as far as the eye can see, broken only by distant, shining ribbons of rivers and streams. Dense, deep, seemingly impenetrable, the forests of the Central African region extend over 200 mn hectares, inspiring awe and sometimes dread among residents and visitors, and providing refuge for everything from rare and endangered plants and animals to ferocious militias accused of brutal crimes against humanity.


It is difficult to imagine that such vast ancient woodlands are at risk of extinction. But they are disappearing at an alarming rate. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), indigenous (also known as “old-growth”) forests in Africa are being cut down at a rate of more than 4 mn hectares per year — twice the world’s deforestation average. According to the FAO, losses totalled more than 10 per cent of the continent’s total forest cover between 1980 and 1995 alone.

Saving Africa’s forests from the chainsaw and axe of encroaching humanity is essential to the health and productivity of much of the continent’s economy, experts point out. They cite the forests’ roles as watersheds, defences against soil erosion and regulators of local weather conditions.

Trees trap ‘greenhouse gases’

But the fate of the forests could also spell the difference between success and failure in the race against global warming. Trees, the dominant inhabitants of the diverse and complex ecological systems called forests, are among the world’s largest and most efficient living storehouses of carbon monoxide, the “greenhouse gas” most responsible for the earth’s temperature rise and changes in the planet’s climate (see Africa Renewal July 2007).

Through a chemical process known as photosynthesis, trees and many other plants absorb carbon from the air and combine it with sunlight to generate the energy they need for life. Trees convert the carbon gas into solid form, store it in their trunks, branches and leaves, and release oxygen back into the atmosphere. Because they take carbon from the atmosphere and produce oxygen, forests are often referred to as “the lungs of the world.” Carbon dioxide is generated primarily by the burning of oil, coal, natural gas and other “fossil” fuels for industry, power generation and transportation.

Countries with the largest forested areas

Preserving Africa’s surviving tropical forests and planting new trees to replace those lost to deforestation could help reduce the severity of climate change by absorbing more carbon from the air, and ease the local impact of climate change by regulating local weather conditions.

But an even greater argument for protecting the forests is the role of deforestation in causing global warming. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), between 20 and 25 per cent of all annual carbon dioxide emissions are caused by the practice of burning forests to clear the land for farming — more than is caused by the entire world transportation sector. Burning trees and brush releases the stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

Poor forest management policies — including unrestricted logging, excessive harvesting of firewood and medicinal plants, and road construction — contribute to the problem, as do drought, flooding, forest fires and other natural disasters. The collection of wood for heating and cooking and for making charcoal is a particular problem in Africa, since wood supplies about 70 per cent of domestic energy needs, a significantly higher percentage than in the rest of the world.

Woman with a seeding, as part of a reforestation project in Malawi AWoman with a seeding, as part of a reforestation project in Malawi.
Photograph: Panos / Mikkel Ostergaard

Estimates of the total amount of carbon stored in the forests vary greatly. One estimate, based on research by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), put the total at about 1,000 bn tonnes, or about 166 years’ worth of current global carbon emissions. Africa contains about 15 per cent of the world’s remaining forests and is second only to South America in the amount of the dense tropical forests that are the most effective in removing carbon from the atmosphere. The vast forests of the DRC alone are estimated to contain as much as 8 per cent of all the carbon stored in the earth’s vegetation.

The conversion of forest land to agriculture, both subsistence and commercial, is by far the most common and most destructive cause of deforestation in Africa and other tropical regions. As demand for farmland grows in response to population pressures, millions of hectares of tropical forests are being put to the torch in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“It is generally accepted,” the FAO noted in a 2000 report on sustainable forestry in Africa, “that the key to arresting deforestation and to implementing sustainable forest development lies in improved technologies for food production.”

Improving the productivity of African agriculture is a top priority for African governments and features prominently in the continent’s development agenda, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). But transforming the poorly financed and long-neglected agricultural sector is a costly, difficult and long-term goal (see Africa Renewal July 2006). Reform therefore appears unlikely to progress quickly enough to prevent further severe losses to the continent’s woodlands.

In the meantime, improving governments’ ability to manage their forest resources, expanding reforestation programmes and changing public perceptions and economic calculations about the value of existing forests could be the key to the survival of Africa’s deep woods.

Forests and people

The challenges are formidable. Humanity has long appreciated forests for the energy, food and medicine they provide, and as a source of wood products for construction and other purposes. But the role of forests in supporting agriculture, preserving biodiversity, protecting water supplies and moderating the impact of climate change are less well understood. The UN estimated that in 2000 some 1.6 billion people around the world, including many of the world’s poorest, derived at least part of their food, income or medical needs directly from the forest. Of those, some 70 million indigenous people depend on the forests for much of their livelihoods.

A forest hunter in Uganda AA forest hunter in Uganda: Many local communities depend on forests for food, medicinal plants and other supplies.
Photograph: Reuters / James Akena

Africa’s rural poor are particularly dependent on its forests. Although forest products, primarily unfinished logs, account for only about 2 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s exports, forests generate an average of 6 per cent of the region’s gross domestic product — triple the world average. Eighteen African countries, including Cameroon and Ghana, are among the 24 countries worldwide that rely on forests for 10 per cent or more of their economies.

Although environmentalists and advocacy groups have brought international attention to unsustainable, and often illegal, logging in Central and West Africa, about half of all the wood extracted from Africa’s forests is used domestically as fuel. Despite the enormous losses to deforestation, the region is a net importer of processed wood products.

The perception of indigenous forests as a reservoir of unused land and a safety net for bad times is understandable, UNEP forestry expert Christian Lambrechts told Africa Renewal. “People have to rely on the forest to gain access to specific products they can’t buy on the market,” he says. “They have no cash. They can’t go to the chemist. They have to go to the forest to extract medicinal plants.”

Such “subsistence” exploitation of the forests is inevitable in areas of high poverty and causes no damage when done sustainably, Mr. Lambrechts notes. But when large numbers of people are forced to use forests for food and fuel, “it has a local impact on the degradation of the forests.”

Valuing forests, not the trees

Changing the way governments and people value forests, Mr. Lambrechts says, is critical to the survival of those forests. Although the market can price the value of tree plantations and reforestation programmes intended as renewable sources of timber and fuel, he explains, it is not good at determining the value of old-growth forests, which provide a range of vital, but less tangible, services to the economy.

Kenya’s tea plantations, Mr. Lambrechts observes, are a good example of the linkages between indigenous forests and the commercial economy. Tea is a major source of the country’s export earnings and the industry enjoys considerable political clout in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where Mr. Lambrechts is based. “If you look at the plantations, on a map they are all near the major forest areas. This is because tea requires very even temperature and moisture for optimum growth. The forests provide that.”

Preserving Africa’s surviving tropical forests and planting new trees to replace those lost to deforestation could help reduce the severity of climate change by absorbing more carbon from the air.

By regulating temperatures and trapping and releasing moisture during the hot dry season, Mr. Lambrechts continues, forests create the climate conditions needed for the quality teas that Kenya sells. “If you don’t have the forests you don’t have tea.” When comparing the cost of preserving the forests to the wealth created by the tea plantations, he says, it makes financial sense for the tea estates to invest in sound forestry and encourage greater government regulation and control of forest resources.

Kenya is similarly reliant on the forests for electricity, over 70 per cent of which is generated by hydroelectric dams fed by mountain forest watersheds. “It is less about finding an exact value for the forests than in calculating the losses if the forests disappear,” he explains. “If we apply the payment-for-services principle to all the sectors that receive services from the forest — agriculture, power, water and many others — we might find a good basis for having the private sector be in favour of conservation.” As forests dwindle, he notes, both government and the private sector are beginning to realize that forest services can no longer be had for free and must be paid for like other goods and services.

Building an environmental constituency

Enlisting industry can also broaden the political constituency for the forests, Mr. Lambrechts points out. “We are working at getting the private sector to persuade the government to protect some of those sites,” he says, noting that lobbying on behalf of stronger enforcement of forestry laws by a range of business interests attracts more notice from policymakers. In the past, he says, only forestry officials would respond to UNEP reports on the health of Kenya’s forests. Now they work with officials in the finance ministry and the vice president’s office as well, an indication that the importance of the forests to Kenya’s overall economic development is more widely appreciated by government. “That is the way to get support from what I would say is the higher decision-making level,” he argues. “I believe that is the way forward.”

Mr. Lambrechts emphasizes that different kinds of forests provide different kinds of services, and that finding the right match is a vital part of sustainable forestry. Indigenous forests, he says, store more carbon, regulate weather conditions better and contain more and more varied biodiversity than tree plantations and reforested areas.

But reforestation and commercial forestry are also important for creating a renewable source of wood products and a buffer between humanity and the ancient trees. “On the one hand, people have more produce from their existing land and thus less need to go to the indigenous forests to extract the same products. On the other, they are basically establishing agro-forestry practices on land outside of forests and improving the soil quality and other services the land can provide” by using trees to prevent wind and water erosion of topsoil, trap and recycle plant nutrients and provide a renewable source of energy, wood products, animal fodder and other valuable materials to farmers.

‘Greed’ and deforestation

Preserving and expanding Africa’s forests, says UNEP’s Mr. Lambrechts, will require a mix of sound forestry practices and greater appreciation of the real financial value of forest eco-systems. But the political dimensions are also important, he maintains.

He notes that in East Africa and other parts of the continent, the main cause of deforestation is no longer local encroachment on forested areas for farmland or high subsistence use, or even for illegal logging. “It is basically illegal settlements. These settlements are not triggered by local people. They are instigated by leaders. Those leaders are selling public land that does not belong to them or trying to provide people with access to land in order to get their vote in the next election. This is very different from the classic case of local poverty and forest degradation that we are often talking about…. The root cause is greed.”

He cites one case in which a Kenyan member of parliament sold 14,000 hectares of forested public trust land to unsuspecting buyers. “He brought people from different districts and secured their vote in the election,” he charges. Although the incident caused a public uproar and the government evicted more than 10,000 settlers, the legislator was never prosecuted and never returned the money. As a result, the buyers returned to the trust lands and the dispute has yet to be resolved.

In one sense, Mr. Lambrechts asserts, such cases are an unintended consequence of multiparty democracy. “One of the side effects is that politicians sometimes use forest land to buy votes. In a country where so much of the economy is based on agriculture and forest land is generally seen as idle land, politicians promise people land in exchange for support.”

Yet, civil society activists point out, democracy also offers solutions to such problems by holding elected officials and parties accountable to the public at election time and enabling a free press to alert voters and decision-makers to abuses. Democracy makes government more responsive to pressure from organized grassroots groups like Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a national women’s organization that has planted an estimated 30 mn trees since its founding in 1977. Democracy can enhance the influence of the private sector as well, allowing businesses to choose parties and candidates most attuned to their interests — including their interest in preserving forests.

At loggerheads over logging

Commercial logging is the second largest contributor to deforestation in Africa, threatening the continent’s existing indigenous forests and, in some cases, its political stability. Part of the problem, say environmentalists and forestry experts, is the common use of clear cutting and other unsound methods that strip large areas of trees and vegetation, damaging the forests’ ability to retain water and provide habitat for animal and plant life. Clear cutting sometimes erodes the exposed soil to a point at which natural regeneration or reforestation efforts are impossible.

UN and non-governmental researchers report that the indiscriminate, labour-intensive methods common to logging operations in Central Africa and other developing regions waste as many as half of the trees cut down through destruction of non-commercial varieties and clearing of forestland for roads, logging camps and work areas. Much of the refuse and surrounding brush is burned, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.

The scope of the problem can be enormous. Mr. Lambrechts reports that during one three-month period, UNEP monitors recorded the loss of 14,000 trees at a single logging camp.

Vast areas of Central Africa’s indigenous forests are at risk. In the DRC alone, the World Bank estimates that logging concessions, many of which were issued improperly by unscrupulous officials during the country’s war, cover 50 mn hectares of deep forests. In 2002 the DRC government suspended 25 mn hectares of logging concessions granted as part of a World Bank-supported review of dozens of logging and mining contracts signed by previous governments. The government also adopted a new forestry code to improve forestry management practices and ensure transparency in contracting procedures.

But the inability of many developing countries to regulate and manage their forests due to conflict, weak law enforcement, poor administrative authority and corruption has allowed illegal logging to flourish. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that annual losses to illegal logging totalled $15 bn globally, including $5 bn in government revenues lost in unpaid taxes, royalties and other fees. In Gabon, illegal logging is estimated to comprise 70 per cent of the entire industry and in Ghana, about 60 per cent. The scale of the problem, and the corruption and contempt for law that accompany it, the Bank notes, “undermine any nation’s attempt to achieve sustainable economic growth, social balance and environmental protection.”

Both legal and illegal logging in indigenous forests can also accelerate human encroachment on the forests by opening up the areas to settlement and commerce. “Logging companies are effectively road engineers,” the international environmental group Greenpeace noted in a report on logging in the DRC. “Once the rainforest is opened up by logging roads the area becomes vulnerable to clearance for agriculture,” which leads to the permanent loss of forestland and the release of greenhouse gases.

The organization estimates that logging concessions in Central Africa’s primary forests cover an area the size of Spain, and that deforestation could release more than 34 bn tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by 2050 — about the same amount of carbon emitted by the UK over the past 60 years. Although the World Bank, the UN and local governments have tried to reduce the scope and impact of illegal logging, Greenpeace and other critics argue that even legal logging of indigenous forests creates the risk of deforestation in developing countries, contributing to climate change and environmental damage.

Avoiding deforestation

Efforts to bring the private sector into the struggle to preserve the world’s remaining old-growth forests are also underway internationally. Under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) established by the Kyoto Protocol — the international treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions — Northern polluters can offset some of their discharges by financing “green” projects in the developing South.

In the case of forestry, the rules allow countries to receive credit for planting new trees, which absorb carbon as they grow (see box). But similar incentives not to cut down existing forests, a phenomenon known as “avoided deforestation,” were excluded from the CDM amid disputes among governments about how to calculate their value as carbon storehouses and what to do if protected trees are later cut down.

Heavily forested countries charge that the failure to extend CDM financing to the preservation of old-growth forests is both unfair and unwise. In September 2007, Gabon, Cameroon, DRC, Costa Rica, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Malaysia, which together contain 80 per cent of the world’s remaining tropical forests, formed the Forestry Eight to challenge the exclusion.

If avoided deforestation were eligible for the same CDM incentives available to reforestation programmes, they argue, they would be eligible for tens of billions of dollars in green investment by polluting countries. That money could then be invested in other climate-friendly development programmes. They also note that to date African and other poor developing countries have largely failed to attract CDM investments and lack the resources to adjust to climate change and reduce their own emissions.

In early 2007 the World Bank announced plans for a pilot $250 mn fund to finance avoided deforestation projects in developing countries. A Bank official told Africa Renewal that the lending agency hopes to launch the fund by the end of the year.

Although the proposal enjoys considerable support among developing countries, it remains controversial, with questions remaining about how to calculate the carbon value of existing forests and fears that forest nations could blackmail industrialized countries by threatening to cut their forests down. One senior US environmental adviser, noting that deforestation is prohibited in most countries, denounced the proposal, telling the UK’s Financial Times newspaper that, “you would be paying people not to engage in an illegal activity.” The proposal was approved in Bali in December at the first of a series of meetings to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

However humanity chooses to preserve them, Mr. Lambrechts concludes, the world’s indigenous forests are simply too valuable to lose. “For ten thousand years we have been conquering the earth,” he says. “Now the earth is full and we have no choice but to manage it instead.”

Without the community, a carbon discredit

It must have seemed like a good idea back in 1994, when a non-profit agency established by Dutch power companies contracted with the Ugandan government to reforest an area on the edge of Uganda’s Mount Elgon National Park. The companies expected to offset their European greenhouse gas emissions by planting pollution-absorbing trees, and to give Uganda a greener park that had been damaged by human encroachment during years of civil conflict. But a farming community already occupied the land, and its members were not consulted. Paramilitary park rangers forcefully evicted some 500 families to make room for the trees. They burned homes, assaulted residents and refused to provide alternative land or compensation as required by law.

While the Dutch non-profit went on to plant over half a million trees in subsequent years, the former residents fought back, filing a legal challenge against the evictions and petitioning for return of the land. When a Ugandan court ruled in the community’s favour and ordered the government to redraw the park boundaries, the community members returned to their former farms. They chopped down the trees and sowed maize and beans among the stumps. All the carbon offsets awarded to the Dutch companies were lost and the non-profit agency has suspended further plantings in the area until the dispute is definitively resolved.

To critics of the carbon-offset market, the Mount Elgon fiasco is a textbook example of just how badly wrong such projects can go. For UN Environment Programme expert Christian Lambrechts, it is a lesson in the importance of recognizing the legitimate interests of neighbouring communities and actively involving them in forestry programmes. Although consultation does not guarantee success, he says, it can head off confrontation. “Once the local community gets a little bit empowered and realizes their stake,” he notes, “it becomes their forest.”