/ 3 May 2019

Africa in a battle to save forests

Unrooted: New research shows that Africa is losing trees at an unprecedented rate. Areas of particular concern are the DRC
Unrooted: New research shows that Africa is losing trees at an unprecedented rate. Areas of particular concern are the DRC, Madagascar, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

This week, Liberian activist Alfred Brownell won the prestigious Goldman Environmental prize for his efforts to protect Liberia’s rainforest from the depredations of a multinational palm oil producer. But new research, showing that deforestation in Africa is increasing at an unprecedented rate, suggests the continent needs plenty more Alfred Brownells if it is to have a hope of protecting its trees — and, ultimately, the planet itself.

“We are in a war for this planet,” said Brownell from Northeastern University in Boston. He was forced into exile after he formed a public interest law group that used legal means to prevent the exploitation of Liberian rainforests by a Singapore-based palm oil producer.

“It’s not just a struggle to protect remote towns and villages, or just to protect their sacred sites, or just to protect their land and their crops, their way of life, their culture, their religion. It’s also about protecting these important forests in West Africa which are producing oxygen and absorbing carbon and, in essence, making an enormous contribution in the mitigation of climate change,” he said.

But those forests are disappearing quicker than ever before, according to research organisation Global Forest Watch (GFW). And the problem is not limited to West Africa.

Every year, artificial intelligence software designed by GFW trawls through hundreds of thousands of satellite images to assess the state of the world’s forests. Every year, the algorithm throws up more bad news: forest cover is declining rapidly, with terrible implications for the health of the planet and the species which live on it, including humans.

In 2018 alone, some 12-million hectares of tree cover were lost in the tropics. Of this, 3.6-million hectares — an area the size of Lesotho — was primary forest, containing trees hundreds or thousands of years old. To put this into perspective: Brownell is estimated to have saved 208 000 hectares of primary forest in Liberia.

Because of their age,primary forests contain more carbon than other forests, making them invaluable in the climate-change fight. Losing them is a double blow: not only is all this carbon released into the atmosphere, but the land where the forests used to be no longer sucks carbon from the atmosphere.

The main problem areas are Brazil and Indonesia’s rainforests, which together account for 46%of primary rainforest loss in 2018. But this year researchers discovered a new disturbing development: trees in Africa are disappearing at an unprecedented rate.“We generally have seen an increase in African countries in terms of primary forest loss,” said Mikaela Weisse, a GFW researcher.

Three regions in Africa are of particular concern: The first is Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which both experienced dramatic losses in primary forest cover between 2017 and 2018 (60% and 26% respectively). Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what drove the loss, illegal mining is likely to have played a major role, as are expanding cocoa plantations. That’s right: chocolate, our favourite guilty pleasure, just became even guiltier.

“Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and leading cocoa and chocolate companies pledged in 2017 to end deforestation in cocoa supply chains. While this is a promising first step, the recent rise in primary forest loss — especially in protected areas, where 70%of the loss occurred — is a worrying sign,” said GFW.

The second is the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is behind only Brazil in terms of the total area of primary forest lost.“In the … Congo, primary forest loss was 38%higher in 2018 than it was from 2011-2017. Expansion of small-scale forest clearing for agriculture and fuelwood likely caused about three-quarters of this loss. Some loss patterns suggest that new, medium-sized agriculture and conflict-induced population displacement have also contributed,” researchers said.

Madagascar is the third area of concern. It lost 2% of its primary forests in 2018. That is a higher proportion than any other tropical country. GFW attributes this mostly to small-scale forest clearing for agriculture and fuel.

Taken together, the reduction in primary forest across Africa represents a major threat to the continent’s biodiversity, and to the world’s chances of preventing temperature increases. When it comes to combating climate change, we need more forests, not fewer.