EVERY GOOD INTERVENTION PLAN needs realistic implementation guidelines, timelines, elaborate description of actors, clear pathways for funding, accountability criteria and unambiguous details on impacts, all of which could be put in proper contexts by outlining the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) mechanisms, key performance indicators (KPIs) and comprehensive impact assessment criteria. Activities that have led the world to the present extent of environmental pollution and degradation have been mostly motivated by optimism and sense of possibilities which, in practice, have proven to be one-way and presumptuous thinking that downplayed the intended and unintended consequences.
The world has advanced technologically, scientifically and economically as a result of audacious and innovative thinking, discoveries and inventions. And more are still coming. The Malthusian Theory of Population, once criticised and derided by latter day pundits as the world economy and population grew exponentially in tandem, appears to be back in full reckoning. The new thinking and obsession about climate appears to be raising fears about threats to the world’s future as ‘sustainability’ has now become a buzzword among those showing concerns for the years ahead. Although the talk about food has been variously described and discordant voices are raised about assortments of solutions, the reality of the theory of exponential population and arithmetic food supply growth proposed by Thomas Robert Malthus may be manifesting in some significantly different ways. It could be that a balance between population growth and food supply has not been significantly threatened by inadequate production of food, but unfolding environmental and climate events could still prove Malthus right, ultimately.
Last week, the United Nations (UN) launched the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration as part of the World Environment Day commemoration. Earlier in April, a document titled ‘The Global Forest Goals Report 2021’ was released. From such a report, the unease of many leading diplomats, thinkers and activists has become apparent. What they have not been able to successfully do is to find the right balance between economic growth, population increase, environmental vulnerability and climate crisis, all of which are on the upward trajectories. From the complex interplay of globalisation, wealth creation, technological advancements, environmental pollution and various forms of politics associated with these, there seems to be greater risks ahead as the UN has chosen the World Environment Day theme around ecosystem restoration. The escalating climate and biodiversity crises putting the world’s forest at risk has been recognised as potentially risky for the people who rely on the forests one way or another, directly or indirectly.
Arguments about the COVID-19 lockdown have been neither here nor there as some opined that the global lockdown helped to restore the environment on one hand while some posited that the lockdown forced many people to embark on activities inimical to the forest on the other hand. The validity of either side of the arguments could very well be circumstantial, situational and location-specific: it may not hold a universal relevance, and this is the reason why some viewpoints may not provide the pictures that is globally representative. Politicians will like this, not for the good of all, but for advancing their own agenda, no doubt. Those who publicly acknowledge that the various man-made advances are being threatened by the “overall worsening state of our natural environment, including land degradation, pests and invasive species, fires, storms, and droughts” have strong arguments. But they too are preparing the grounds for those “climate smart” politicians, especially those of the order of Green New Deal, who grandstand as the ‘saviours’ of the world from environmental threats.
This is where Africa needs to be discreet in what position to take and decisive in what actions to embark upon on climate and environment issues. While the global north has undergone its era of deforestation and now wants to dictate to others about how to handle deforestation or remedial afforestation, African thought leaders must understand and reckon fully with the fact that not all the leading voices on environmental issues are altruistic. It can be argued that many of the industry-led voices and those working through political figures are clearly pursuing parochial agendas. Therefore, the Western-inspired models may not be the best for Africa in tackling the remedial actions on forests and environment. Take this extract from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs on The Global Forest Goals Report 2021, which emphasised one side of a multidimensional problem, stating that “millions of people have turned to forests for their most essential subsistence needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.” This statement, credited to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, was merely stating the obvious and emphasising a lingering problem.
Before the pandemic, the poor people in developing countries have been living off the forests. One major reason for steady deforestation in many African countries was that government’s presence has not been felt beyond towns and cities in many countries, as their livelihood practices have been largely informal, leaving the rural people to depend on nature for subsistence. One of the resources from nature that they exploit most is the forest, as many cut down trees indiscriminately for timber or charcoal making for sale in instances and places where health-friendly, environmentally friendly and economically affordable alternatives of fuel for cooking are lacking. If the onslaught on the forests during the COVID-19 lockdown was exacerbated, that could be understandable, but COVID-19 lockdown did not necessarily make that a novel practice. However, this highlights the protracted failure of governments in Africa and the lip services paid to climate commitments, such as the Nationally Determined Contributions signed up to by many countries during the COP 21 meeting in France in 2015. Guterres could be right to some extent that “many countries were working hard to reverse native forest loss and increase protected areas designated for biodiversity conservation,” but how fast and how far those efforts could go in reversing the deforestation that has been accomplished already is subject to much doubt, especially when the remedial actors are bogged down by divisive politics, funding constraints and sometimes unclear roadmaps to guide implementation. It is also apposite to state that “it is still too early to assess the impact of the pandemic on the world’s forests.”
While plausible statements come from high places, it is important that the stated recognitions are matched with appropriate actions. The same UN report that quoted Guterres also cited Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, as saying that “investing in forests is investing in our future” and “we must strengthen our global efforts to protect and restore forests and support the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities. Only then can we realize our shared vision for a more just, equitable and sustainable world.” This statement will be taken seriously in Africa if Zhenmin can look the Chinese government straight in the face and advice it to refrain from further exploiting the pristine forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) for export as timber into China while it protects its own forests.
Halting the deforestation in developing countries that now hold significant proportions of the world’s forests might remain a Herculean task as long as the interests behind the massive exploitation cannot be reined in. The world seems to be on a course that is most difficult to deviate from, and influential politics as well as investments and wealth creation motives will most probably continue to drive the world further down that path. The leading voices against deforestation need to come up with the business and economic models to follow, rather than making blanket advocacies as it is very clear that pecuniary interests – under the veneer of various other considerations – is at the core of today’s spate of deforestation. Those who acknowledge that increasing rural poverty, unemployment and population growth, combined with greater competition for land with other sectors, including agriculture and urbanisation, are also putting growing pressure on forests should also come to terms with this fundamental issue of material gains driving all of these disruptive forces on the forests.
The African experience on halting deforestation since over the past one decade has not been reassuring. The grandiose project called the Great Green Wall, launched since 2007 by the African Union as “a symbol of hope in the face of one of the biggest challenges of our time – desertification,” is yet to make any noticeable impact after 14 years. It was an initiative described as game-changing African-led, with the stated aims of restoring Africa’s degraded landscapes and transforming millions of lives in one of the world’s poorest regions, the Sahel and intended to cover an 8,000 km natural wonder of the world stretching across the entire width of Africa. It was initially conceived as a way to combat desertification in the Sahel region and hold back expansion of the Sahara, by planting a wall of trees stretching across the entire Sahel. Although the Great Green Wall is now reportedly being implemented in more than 20 countries across Africa and more than eight billion dollars have been mobilised and pledged for its support, the 2020 data could be taken to mean that there is still a long way to go in a projected originally framed to restore 100 million ha of currently degraded land; sequester 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million green jobs by 2030.
The accomplishments thus far, from 2020 data indicate that not many the countries involved have achieved much success along the Sahel region from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East of Africa. For the 11 countries listed as intervention zones for the Great Green Wall, namely: Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan, the results have varied very widely, from Senegal that covered 0.8 Mha intervention area to Niger that has covered 47.3 Mha, according to the UN Convention to combat desertification. A total of 156.1 Mha has been covered so far, based on that report. Africa needs to halt deforestation and boost reforestation. But the continent needs to look inwards, reflect over the peculiarity of the situation, appropriate modalities for achieving these aims and jettison imported models of solutions that would not help the continent. The African Union needs to be particularly vigilant, responsive and deliberate in its pursuit of these aims. Merely writing down the stated purpose and sitting back would not help. Just as nature abhors vacuum, if the African solutions are not adopted, any other solution from elsewhere will fill the space. And Africa’s deforestation problem will continue unabated. Although the politicians are not the most suitable set of people to lead the charge in terms of ideas, they are nonetheless needed to push ideas coming from a rich repertoire of seasoned policy and strategic studies experts. Politicians should give them the space and the boost. What is most important is to get Africa to overcome the problem. The thinkers should be supported to emerge with the right strategies while the politicians take the credit for pushing the ideas for implementation. It is time for a home-grown solution to Africa’s deforestation.
Frontpage December 16, 2019