Kissing livelihoods and ecosystems goodbye — the very real threat of 'fake forests' in Africa

Planted forests have been increasing in Africa at a rate of 0.2 million hectare a year--to the benefit largely of the commercial plantations.

THE FIRST World Forestry Congress to be held in Africa ended last week in Durban, South Africa. The most significant gathering that the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) organises on forests, it is held every six years, with a big highlight this year being the launch of “The Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015: How are the world’s forests changing?”

But while forestry was at the core of the congress, civil society groups came together with an alternative programme of meetings, events and activities - in protest against what they believe is a conference aimed at promoting the interests of the global timber industry, and made largely inaccessible to those that are negatively affected by timber industry activities. 

This culminated in a protest on September 10 in Durban, when over 3,000 people took to the streets as part of an action against “fake forests”. The march concluded with Greenpeace executive director, Kumi Naidoo, handing over a 100,000 signature petition against plantations to the WFC Programme Manager Motsamai Nkosi.

Fake forest threat

Since 1990, some 38 million hectares  of primary forest have been reported as modified or cleared. This does not necessarily mean that this forest is converted to other land uses. Primary forest, when modified but not cleared, changes into other naturally regenerated (secondary) forest and in some cases planted forest.

Planted forest area has increased by over 110 million hectares since 1990, reaching a total of 290 million hectare in 2015, and accounts for 7% of the world’s forest area. In the case of Africa, the amount of replanted forest increased by 0.2 million hectares per year from 2010, totalling 16 million hectares in 2015. 

What is of concern to the civil society groups is that even the FAO is not making enough of a differentiation between natural and planted forests and the impact this has on the ecosystems and local communities. For example, the FAO’s definition of ‘“forest” includes commercial plantations of fast growing trees. 

According to the Global Forest Coalition (GFC), this means that the FAO over the years has promoted the expansion of large-scale monocultures of trees, most of them alien species that wreak havoc on local biodiversity. These include eucalyptus, pine, acacia, rubber tree, as well as oil palm plantations.

Losing livelihoods

Currently, there are 300 million women and men worldwide who, according to the FAO, directly depend on forests for their livelihoods. 

In Africa, a study involving seven countries across the continent has shown that the forestry sector plays a significant role in national economies, and that informal activities such as fuelwood and non-timber (for example fruit) product collection, contribute to household income and in creating employment. For example, in Zimbabwe, 35 % of average total household income comes from non-cultivated environmental goods while in the dry forests of South Africa forest income represents around 20% of average total household income.

Civil society organisations express their concerns that the growing rush in Africa whereby companies and investment funds are grabbing more land to grow these “planted forests” - such as the palm oil rush in West and Central Africa and the eucalyptus, rubber tree and pine plantations in the South and East - are stripping communities of their livelihoods with plantations providing inadequate jobs.

Damage to ecosystems

Civil society organisations also express concern over the potential damage to ecosystems that monoculture plantations cause. GFC explains that there is the risk of invasive alien species, plantations which provide no habitat to animals and plants and require the heavy spraying of herbicides and chemicals.

For example, eucalyptus plantations in East Africa have been criticised for their negative impact on the environment such as heavy use of soil water, therefore affecting streams and underground water, its adverse effect of the leaf litter and soil humus, high consumption of soil nutrients, inability to prevent soil erosion, inhibition of growth of other plants and failure to provide food supplies or adequate habitat for wildlife.

The impact on wildlife can also be devastating. One example is the potentially devastating impact on Africa’s great apes. Studies by environmental group Earthsight found that palm oil already covers 1,000 sq km of Central Africa and that 1 million sq km in the region are suitable for the crop. The plantations would represent 92% of the forestland in Congo and 64% in the Central African Republic. 

This is of great concern to the African great apes  - namely chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos. A study by primate biologist Serge Wich and his colleagues, found that around 59% of current palm oil concessions overlap with ape distribution and that about 40% of suitable palm oil areas eyed for development are found where apes live but are currently unprotected. 


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