Op-ed: Over 5 years Africa has lost forests the size of England, this is how to create a trade-off

Deforestation remains a persistent environmental challenge in Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that between 2010 to 2015 alone, the continent experienced a net loss of around 17 million hectares of forests. To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to more than 1.3 times the total land size of England. It is also a major driver of carbon emissions.

A narrative has developed that suggests there is a trade-off between sustainable land use and local economic growth, and particularly in low-income countries, it is clear which one will prevail. However the current debate is dominated by anecdotes rather than compelling, broad-based evidence. The challenge in conducting this analysis is that in many of these forest-frontier regions, economic data is often absent or not particularly robust. In addition, there are issues with the lack of a sufficiently long time series to understand impact or a control group to measure progress against.

A recent study conducted to explore the available evidence and identify innovative approaches for reconciling competing social, economic and environmental objectives challenges the view that a trade-off between local prosperity and environmental outcomes is inevitable. In fact, in a number of African countries, a range of sustainable land use initiatives have deployed (ranging from smallholder yield improve to land degradation prevention) that have boosted local incomes while protecting the environment. The real question is whether these can be scaled up to a meaningful level? There is no point in having an oasis of green in a desert of deforestation. This is where jurisdictional programs hold great potential. Jurisdictional programs are sustainable development programs that take place at a scale that matches the administrative boundaries of sub-national or national governments (Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1

Liberia is one such example. The West African country is at a critical juncture in its economic and environmental development. Deforestation has been increasing and the total tree cover loss between 2001-2014 was over 711,000 hectares. The country has also earmarked over 930,000 hectares of land for palm oil cultivation.  Managed poorly, the environmental consequences could be detrimental to one of the continent’s biodiversity hotspots. In response, Liberia has developed a national-level jurisdictional program, which aims to reduce deforestation, create verified deforestation-free commodity producing areas, and also support local prosperity.




Liberia’s jurisdictional program is still in its infancy, but holds great promise (Exhibit 2). The study has identified several challenges in Liberia that will need overcoming, which are similar to other jurisdictions examined .

  1. Aligning incentives: while jurisdictional governments have committed to sustainable development pledges, communication, consensus building, and resilience to stay the course can be challenging. In Liberia, a particular challenge is encouraging local communities to participate in conservation efforts.
  2. Developing operational frameworks: that can clearly translate sustainable land use goals into practice.
  3. Implementation: particularly in regards to land use planning and resolving conflicting land right claims.

Despite these challenges there are programmes that are being implementing, showcasing different approaches and strength of multistakeholder partnerships.

  • Liberia Forest Sector Project. The World Bank implemented this programme in April 2016. It aims to support the government’s efforts to manage and improve the forest sector and protects nearly 1.5 million hectares of the country’s remaining natural forest.[i] Initiatives from the programme include:
    • Forest investment project. The project aims to strengthen regulatory and institutional systems to improve the management of forest landscapes and complete the process of legal reform and enforcement. It will also enhance the landscape management of protected areas and community managed forests. Other components of the project include the operationalization of a measurement and reporting system for forests and emissions reductions, reference level development, and an information system for safeguards.
    • Rubber production through private-sector partnership. This project provides financing to smallholder farmers to replant and renovate ageing rubber plantations and adopt sustainable agronomic practices (see the “Environmental Benefits” section of this chapter).
    • Payments for verified emissions. This project provides financial payments for successful implementation of activities that lead to measured, reported and verified emissions reductions.
  • Africa Palm Oil Initiative in Liberia. The APOI brings together TFA 2020 partners and collaborators within governments, companies, civil society, and indigenous and local communities to prioritize sustainable palm oil development in Africa. The goal of APOI is to develop and support the implementation of a set of regional principles for responsible palm oil development that accounts for the ambitious development plans of countries in Africa. This approach aims to balance forest conservation, community development and commercial interests while supporting the protection of high forest cover landscapes. Specific to Liberia, APOI has conducted national workshops on Liberia’s to develop actions plan for sustainable palm oil production and is working on an implementation framework to guide the expansion of sustainable palm oil cultivation in the country.
  • Smallholder productivity and forest protection programme. NICFI and the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) are supporting a programme to achieve forest conservation in commercially productive landscapes in Liberia. The programme aims to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, increase prosperity and create verified deforestation-free commodity producing landscapes. Partners in the programme include the Government of Liberia, ArcelorMittal (mining), Sime Darby (oil palm and rubber), GVL (oil palm), local communities and civil society. The initiative, which began in March 2016, also endeavours to pioneer an investment model where investments in agricultural intensification are tied to forest conservation goals. Core activities of the programme include developing land use plans consistent with commercial and conservation goals; signing protection agreements that commit participants to sustainably produced commodities; enabling investments in outgrowers (which are financially risky); and enforcing forest conservation policies.[ii]

The success of these efforts depends greatly on the multistakholder approach. Liberia, and other African countries, are on the road to act as leading examples of how environmental preservation and economic prosperity can go hand in hand.

[i] Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF),The Liberia Forest Program”, 2015.

[ii] IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, Green Growth: Achieving forest conservation in commercially productive landscapes in Indonesia, Liberia and Brazil, 2015.

This article was supplied to CNBC Africa by WEF as part of our collaboration.

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