Deforestation Is Undercutting Africa’s Climate Resilience

DURBAN, South Africa, December 8, 2011 (ENS) – Deforestation is accelerating across Africa, killing wildlife and weakening the ability of the continent’s ecosystems to withstand climate change, especially in the area of food security, said forest experts in Durban for the United Nations annual climate change conference.

“Deforestation rates in Africa are accelerating,” said Helen Gichohi, president of the African Wildlife Foundation, during a keynote speech at Forest Day in Durban on the sidelines of the conference.

“The disappearing forests, the overgrazed rangelands, and conversion to crop agriculture of grasslands and wetlands that had served as a refuge to drought, have all diminished the resilience of ecosystems,” Gichohi said.

Forest Day was convened December 4 by the Center for International Forestry Research on behalf of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests. The year’s event was hosted jointly with the Government of South Africa. It attracted more than 1,000 people, including more than 200 climate change negotiators.

Ugandan forest cleared for agriculture, February 2008 (Photo by Douglas Sheil courtesy CIFOR)

“It is urgent to safeguard Africa’s forests, not only because they slow climate change, but also because they act as a final barrier to creeping desertification, underpin sustainable agricultural production, and support the livelihoods of tens of millions of rural poor,” said Frances Seymour, CIFOR director general.

South Africa’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson warned delegates, “Climate change threatens to undermine many of the development objectives of countries in Africa and in the rest of the developing world, in particular in the areas of water, energy, health, agriculture and forestry.”

With the theme “Protecting forests, fighting climate change: Moving from REDD+ policy to practice,” Forest Day provided a platform to consider how forests and forest resources can be better utilized to combat climate change.

REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation by funding forest conservation. Being discussed as part of the United Nations climate talks in Durban, this system could allow billions of dollars to be channeled to developing countries to protect their forests by leaving them standing.

Gichohi called for REDD+ funding to become available quickly to save Africa’s forests.

Bob Scholes of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa, agreed, warning, “The next major wave of deforestation is already here and it is happening in Africa.”

“If we can do something to influence deforestation, we can have a greater effect on everything than has happened so far under the Kyoto Protocol,” he said. “This challenge is worth the effort.”

Illegal logging in Kenya, November 2011 (Photo by David Mbuthia Mwangi courtesy Connect4Climate)

Scholes described the typical pattern of deforestation in Africa – loggers come into a forest, they chop the large trees and take out the valuable timber, then charcoal manufacturers remove a large proportion of the remaining trees. Then low-input, low-output agriculture arrives, which, after a few cycles, leaves the land degraded and of little value.

Forest destruction and other forms of land degradation caused by human activities have transformed vast areas of Africa’s once grazeable and farmable land into barren landscapes.

Gichohi said that nine percent of forest cover has been lost between 1995 and 2005 across sub-Saharan Africa, a region likely to be hard-hit by climate change. Kenya, for instance, has lost the majority of its forest cover to settlements and agriculture, leaving only 1.7 percent of its land still forested.

To honor tree-planting champion the late Wangari Maathai of Kenya, Africa’s first Nobel Peace Laureate and founder of the Greenbelt Movement, Forest Day participants viewed a new film challenging the global forest community to act boldly to reduce the threat of climate change.

“It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make the leaders change,” Maathai said in the film. “So we must stand up for what we believe in and we cannot be intimidated.”

“Forests cannot be sustained if people are hungry or governance of natural resources is inadequate,” said Rachel Kyte, vice president of sustainable development at the World Bank. “Hunger places a direct burden on forests when people are forced to push deeper into forested areas to grow crops, or resort to making and selling charcoal in order to buy food.”

Logs in Ethiopia await transport to market (Photo by Growing Forest Partnerships)

Another World Bank official says financial support for REDD+ projects to safeguard forests in developing countries is increasing, with new countries pledging to get involved and existing donors stepping up their commitments.

Kenneth Andrasko of the Bank’s Carbon Finance Unit said in Durban, “The past two years have seen considerable donor contributions to multilateral REDD+ initiatives. There has been continued progress, albeit slow, towards a system for performance-based system for forest carbon. The concept is gaining hold more broadly.”

Several international REDD+ programs have emerged since REDD gained traction at the UN climate conference in Bali four years ago. The biggest of these are those administered by the World Bank – the Forest Investment Program, which has received pledges amounting to US$577 million, and Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, with pledges reaching US$436 million.

But the global financial crisis is likely to affect climate finance, Andrasko warned. “We’re beginning to see some early signals that some of the traditional donors have constraints.”

CIFOR is one of 15 centers within the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR, the world’s largest consortium of agricultural researchers.

At Forest Day, CGIAR announced a new global research program devoted to forests and agroforestry with an initial three-year budget of US$233 million. The CGIAR research program aims to reinvigorate efforts to reduce deforestation and forest degradation and expand the use of trees on farms.

More REDD+ action took place on Monday, when the Philippine and Swiss governments hosted a side event on building a governance framework for REDD+ financing, together with the Ateneo School of Government, the Climate Markets & Investment Association, and Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.

Farmer Nelson Mkwaila in Malawi has planted trees in his maize field. (Photo by Charlie Pye-Smith courtesy World Agroforestry Centre)

A report presented at the event recommends that the international community catalyze adequate financing for REDD+ in all phases of implementation.

REDD+ payments should cover implementation and monitoring of environmental, social and governance safeguards, the report recommends.

Unlocking private finance requires demand for REDD+ credits and incentives for sustainable investments, the report found.

At a separate side event, also on Monday, the Forest Stewardship Council released a new strategy paper that will guide the future efforts of the standard-setting organization that offers use of its logo to timber that meets its criteria for sustainability.

So far, there are no standards covering implementation of projects for forest conservation or protected areas, the strategy paper recognizes, yet, “The destruction and degradation of forests worldwide accounts for a higher share of global CO2 emissions than the entire transport sector. These emissions contribute to the greenhouse effect, increasing the risk of catastrophic climate change.”

At the event, FSC’s Stefan Salvador explained the organization’s goal to link with REDD+ programs and standards.

To work towards including the climate-stabilizing abilities of forests into its certification programs, FSC will pilot test opportunities to cover carbon storage and sequestration more explicitly in its certification system. New business models supporting the provision of ecosystem services will be evaluated and on-the-ground impacts systematically assessed.

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