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Re-afforestation a Game Changer for Africa’s Sustainable Growth?

In the last quarter of 2015 Africa joined the rest of the world in adopting the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development as well as the COP21 Paris agreement. As the most vulnerable region to climate change, these two crucial high level global strategic and policy decisions together with Africa’s own strategies, like the AU Agenda 2063, could set the continent on a growth path, guaranteeing food security, environmental resilience and economic inclusivity.

The continent’s economic growth, however, will not be sustainable without the building and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Africa’s diverse forests and woodlands are an integral part of these ecosystems and support a tremendous amount of biodiversity, protect water sources and contribute to combating climate change by storing significant amounts of carbon.

So what do forest ecosystems contribute to Africa?

Africa’s largest forest, the Congo Basin, accounts for over 60%of Africa’s biodiversity. Central African forests store 25-30 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to four years of current global anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide. Mature humid forests in Africa sequester 630 kilograms of carbon per hectare per year, providing a critical buffer against global climate change. Forests also play important roles in maintaining clean and healthy watersheds that sustain forest-dwelling people and urban populations alike.

Forests contribute to both income and food security at micro house-hold level and at macro, economy wide scale, both directly by providing food and nutrition or supporting food production, and indirectly by providing ecosystem services that underpin agricultural productivity, build climate resilience of food systems and provide income through the sale of forest products. 

At the household level, an estimated 65%of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is rural and depends directly or indirectly on forests and woodlands for food, fuel-wood, building materials, medicines, oils, gums, resins and fodder for their animals. Fuel-wood and charcoal production contributes to the income of an estimated 20% of Africa’s population.

Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo:
Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo:

In rural Tanzania, wild foods contribute 2% of energy intake and 19–30% of vitamin A, vitamin C and iron. 25 – 35% of the annual income of people living near forests in Ethiopia is obtained from forests. In Malawi, studies show that forests have the capacity to augment both food and income during shortages brought about by weather-related crop failure. In Mali, forests are an integral part of daily subsistence and a fundamental element of adaptive climate change strategies. A study of 21 African countries showed that children eat a wider variety of foods, including more fruit and vegetables, with increased tree cover. Forests are therefore essential to enhancing household food and livelihood security.

At the macro-economic level, forests provide an estimated 10% of the gross domestic product of 19 African countries and more than 10% of the trade of ten nations. Cumulatively, forests contribute an average of 6% of GDP in Africa including direct estimated annual earnings of US $1.6 – 5.5 billion.

Losing forests means losing billions of revenues annually

Regardless of the crucial role of forests in ensuring economic and social well-being on the continent, Africa loses its forests significantly through a combination of unsustainable practices and illegal activities. It is estimated that dry forests, which provide a crucial last line of defense against creeping desertification, are disappearing at an estimated rate of between 50,000 – 250,000 Ha annually. In 15 years between 1990 – 2005 Africa lost an estimated over 9% of its forests, at an average rate of 4 million hectares annually. Deforestation is highest in Africa. Though the continent only has 17% of the world’s forests, it accounts for over 50% of global deforestation.

Among reasons for this include unsustainable agriculture practices. For instance, between 2000 and 2010, up to 13 million hectares of forest were cleared annually primarily to expand land for food and fuel. Without optimized agricultural productivity, rising food demand alone will perpetuate deforestation and forest degradation. In addition to unsustainable agricultural practices, environmental crimes account for another significant cause of forest losses. Illegal logging costs Africa a staggering US$ 17 billion annually. The billions lost would otherwise go a long way in funding Africa’s implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the COP21 agreement.

Reversing the trend: Building on policy solutions

To reverse degradation and ensure sustainable use of forests resources, including effective reforestation, current challenges driving forest degradation will need to be addressed. Considering agriculture is a leading cause of forest degradation in Africa, reversing the trend will involve applying scale proven approaches that work with nature.

Congo basin rainforest , Photo:
Congo basin rainforest , Photo:

Optimizing agricultural productivity through Ecosystem Based Adaptation (EBA) techniques such as agro-forestry and Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) provides a very potent solution to Africa’s agro-productivity and ecosystems degradation challenges. Studies show EBA techniques can enhance yields by up to 128% while simultaneously enhancing capacity of ecosystems. This has been proven in a number of countries and regions across Africa.

In Senegal, farmers using the FMNR technique have regenerated indigenous trees on 40 000 hectares of cropland. This ecological technique has increased tree density on cropland from an average of four to 33 trees per hectare and improved soil fertility, crop yields, and wildlife, and reduced soil erosion

Similarly, FMNR in Ethiopia has restored 2 700 hectares of barren mountain terrain. Reported benefits include increased food security and reduced poverty through increased income from forest products and livestock fodder; improved water infiltration, which has improved the ground water levels as well as reduced flash flooding; and reduced erosion and increased soil fertility in the region.

In Niger, 25 years of FMNR application has transformed over 5 million hectares of once barren land into agro-forests, and significantly enhanced food security and community resilience to drought, and increased local incomes.

In Ethiopia, the Humbo Community Managed Forestry Project, Africa’s first large-scale afforestation/reforestation initiative using FMNR to reverse degradation, is regenerating 2,728 hectares of degraded native forests. It is expected to generate 338,000 tonnes worth of carbon credits by 2017 and a secure income stream of more than US$ 700,000 to local communities over ten years.

These proven approaches should be up-scaled to become the norm in degraded agro-ecosystems across Africa, and opportunities to do so exist. The Sustainable Development Goals, primarily SDG 15 on terrestrial ecosystems and SDG 17 on partnerships for implementation, should be leveraged to ensure these proven EBA techniques are up-scaled and implemented to restore degraded forests on the continent. 

Enabling policy space for impactful results

COP21 saw the launch of the African Forest and Landscapes Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which seeks to restore 100 million hectares of degraded and deforested land in Africa by 2030. Endorsed by the AU, AFR100 brings together political leadership with an ambitious package of financial and technical resources to support a large-scale forest landscape restoration effort across Africa. Nine financial and ten technical global partners have pledged support for AFR100.

Ensuring that effective EBA techniques are prioritized to ensure these initiatives are impactful will be vital. Africa’s forests are critical to ensuring long-term sustainable inclusive growth in the region. The multidimensional approaches from policy to investment to effective EBA techniques will be crucial to ensure these forests play their rightful role. 

Dr. Richard Munang is Africa Climate Change & Development Policy Expert. He tweets as @RichardMunang

Mr. Robert Mgendi is the Adaptation Policy Expert

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the institution with which they are affiliated

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