Ghana's grass-roots bid to save country's last forests

For five years now the heat has been less intense and the rainfall more abundant in a small cocoa farming area in Ghana’s Upper Volta region, thanks to villagers bent on affecting climate change.

In this region in Afiaso in the country’s south, their efforts have focused on conserving the nearby Kakum National Park.

“We used to cut down many trees for agricultural use, which brought us a lot of hardship including windstorms, decreased rainfall and increased solar intensity,” said Nana Opare Ababio III, the traditional chief of a 620-member village.

But with conservation efforts, “the amount of rainfall has dramatically increased in the last five years and heat from the sun has reduced and we now have better yield”, he said through an interpreter.

In recent decades, the forests in this West African state have been severely depleted, raising “serious concern for future economic development and sustained rural livelihoods”, said Daniel Kwamena Ewur, manager of Kakum National Park which lies 160km south of the capital Accra.

In 1960, Ghana’s tropical rain forests covered 63 400 square kilometres but human activity has shrunk them down to about 13 500 square kilometres, or 25% of their original size.

Logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, poaching, mining and quarrying as well as wood collection for fuel have mainly been responsible for decimating the country’s primary forests, Ewur said.

The current forest area includes seven national parks, six resource reserves, two wildlife sanctuaries and five coastal wetlands.

According to an official 1992 survey on national living standards, more than 33% of all the people in rural forest regions lived in abject poverty, hence their reliance on depleting the forests to make ends meet.

With deforestation having already transformed the north of Ghana into savannah lands and the central region facing a similar fate, the government took a radical turn in forest and wildlife management.

Until 1994, the central government had handled everything itself but that year changed tack to actively involve local communities living on the fringe of the country’s forests.

“We were doing everything by ourselves but we realised that we were not achieving much and we now involve local communities around the forests, without whose help we would fail in our conservation efforts,” said Ewur.

Remarkable results
Instead of policing the vast parks on its own, the government set up village groups to monitor nearby parklands and report any suspicious or unauthorised activities to authorities.

The reform also differentiated Ghana’s forests into three zones: “protection” areas for conservation, “production” for logging and “archaeological” zones for preserving national relics or areas with historical interest.

All seven national parks are classified as “protection” zones, and Kakum is the largest.

“Kakum is one of the last vestiges of the Upper Guinea forest and one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world,” said park ranger Rockson Moro.

It covers 366 square kilometres and is home to 40 species of mammals including five endangered species, 200 bird species and over 400 species of butterfly, two of which are found nowhere else in the world, according to officials.

Like all the other “protection” zones, the reforms put it out of bounds for any reason other than tourism.

The trend towards ecotourism has generated huge revenues, forestry officials said without giving figures, and under a 2006 deal, some of the revenue made by parks is returned to local communities.

“The government now devolves more power to the forest communities in conserving the forests, and shares the revenues coming from the forests, and the results are quite remarkable,” said Glen Asomaning, a forest officer with WWF.

Logging is one of Ghana’s major revenue earners which it cannot stop completely but now the country is recording success regulating it and with a four-way revenue sharing system.

The government and logging firms each rake in 40% of the total revenue, while the farm owner gets 15% and the community benefits from 5% of the proceeds.

In return for keeping off the production zone, forest communities share in the ecotourism revenues and provide unskilled staff of the forest management authority as volunteers and tour guides.

Although the monies are meant for development projects, their use is left to the discretion of the local authorities which receive them, which sadly exposes them to mismanagement.

Two years after the enactment of this law, not a dime has gone to Afiaso due to bureaucratic obstacles. And the village needs the money.

“Despite the delay in receiving the [ecotourism] royalty, we are willing to continue with the conservation project and we want the government to bring more of the seedlings it promised us to plant because we have seen the benefits we can derive from them,” chief Ababio III said. - AFP


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