How Poverty is Contributing to Deforestation across Africa

Gitika Bhardwaj speaks to campaigner, Obed Owusu-Addai, about why solving the problem of deforestation across Africa requires tackling one of its biggest causes.

3 minute READ

Obed Owusu-Addai

Managing Campaigner, EcoCare

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Up to 58,000 square miles of forests are being lost to deforestation every year, contributing to climate change, and the loss of habitats for millions of species. What are the key drivers for forest loss across Africa?

Deforestation is directly being caused by activities such as illegal logging, agricultural development, mining and infrastructure projects but there are reasons behind these activities which are often overlooked.

Poverty is one of the most significant indirect reasons causing deforestation across Africa and it is increasing. The population across Africa is growing annually, and because we have a large land area with ample forests, Africans are using it to farm as a means of securing their food security while lifting themselves out of poverty.

African farmers, however, are using tools that are not as sophisticated as those used in developed countries, which leads to farming being inefficient, and so farmers are using up a lot of land in order to produce enough crops. At the same time, because of a lack of fertilizers, the land is also becoming exhausted, so more land is needing to be cleared.

As a result of both of these factors, every year, farmers are expanding the area of land they are farming so that they can produce enough crops to make enough money. This process is called ‘shifting cultivation’ and it is causing a lot of deforestation.

However, although over 90 per cent of all deforestation across Africa is being caused by agricultural development alone, there are other industries responsible too, such as the logging and mining industries, which have both been increasing due to an influx of Chinese loggers and miners operating in Africa.

Ghana, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among a number of African countries working with the European Union to improve forest governance across the continent. What other national, regional and international alliances are helping to address deforestation?

Over the past few years, there have been a number of global initiatives that have been launched in sub-Saharan African countries. Some of the most important include the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Programme (REDD+) and the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100).

There is also the Cocoa and Forest Initiative (CFI) which was signed last year under the patronage of Prince Charles. Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and several other countries around the world – most recently Colombia – have come together with certain chocolate companies to commit to restoring forest areas that have been degraded by cocoa farming and improve sustainability along the cocoa supply chain.

This is an extremely important initiative because, in Ghana, approximately 15 per cent of deforestation is being caused by cocoa farming, as it’s our main export, while almost 800,000 farming families are involved with the cocoa trade.

There are some other initiatives, too, like the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 (TFA2020) initiative and the Africa Palm Oil Initiative (APOI) which specifically seek to put structures in place to address the palm oil sector among other commodities, which, like cocoa, contribute largely to deforestation across Africa.

But more needs to be done. Better resources need to be made available to farmers and there needs to be awareness-building programmes for those working across the agricultural sector so that they understand that, although farming for commodities like cocoa is important to their livelihoods, without forests, they will lose the very source of their livelihoods.

Farmers tend to think that forests are just there for their reserves that can then be sold to make money. No, no, no. Forests need to be preserved to create the microclimate needed for these cash crops to flourish which can then be harnessed sustainably to make money. But, if you lose this microclimate through unsustainable practices, then you’re going to endanger the growth of these crops altogether.

The growing demand for commodities like cocoa, as you mentioned, is also helping to drive deforestation across Africa and other forest-rich regions. While companies have made a number of commitments to combating deforestation along their supply chains, are they doing enough?

I don’t think they are doing enough. My grandmother is a cocoa farmer with an eight-acre farm, and when I was there recently, I saw that most of these cocoa farmers have spent their whole lives being cocoa farmers, yet they cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment for themselves. Instead they are living in mud houses.

One of the reasons for this is because of the disparity between the producer and consumer price of cocoa products. Cocoa is claimed to be an international commodity whose price is determined by the market. But, while the price of cocoa products, such as chocolate, is going up, the price of the raw material remains low. The gap between the raw material and the final product is so wide and this needs to be addressed.

Forests are critical to managing climate change yet deforestation is causing up to 12 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, a group of scientists argued that tackling deforestation was as important as eliminating the use of fossil fuels in preventing the world’s climate rising by more than 1.5°C, but it is not being focused on enough. Do you agree?

Yes, we can reduce the impact of climate change through our forests, so it’s important that we pay more attention to the rate at which we are losing them.

But, we need to address the underlying causes of forest loss, too, with the most important being poverty. The world’s forests are often found in some of the poorest regions in the world where local people depend on them for their livelihoods. If we want to save the remaining forests across Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, we need to start tackling the poverty gap now.

Forests can be revived so reforestation projects are also crucial. We have a lot of land area in Africa which means Africans have a responsibility, too, to plant trees in place of the forest area that is being lost to farming and other industries. But we need more support from developed countries in order to do this.

With one in nine people in the world undernourished, and the agricultural sector providing livelihoods for 40 per cent of the global population, how do you balance providing food security and eliminating poverty with the need to preserve the world’s forests?

That’s an interesting question. How do we manage the space that we have? Research has shown that the optimal production limit for 1 hectare of forest land for cocoa should be 1,500 kilograms per hectare yet, currently, Ghana is only doing 450 kilograms, Indonesia is doing 800 kilograms, Peru is doing 950 kilograms and Brazil is doing about 1,000 kilograms.

What this means is that we are not sustainably cultivating our lands. If a farmer can produce 1,500 kilograms of cocoa from 1 hectare of forest land but they are only producing 450 kilograms, they would be able to increase it with better resources – such as with innovative technology like climate-smart agriculture – rather than encroaching into more forest areas. What this then means for food security is that, from a small piece of land, we would be able to produce higher yields.

In terms of dealing with poverty, if farmers see they will get a better price for the number of crops they are producing on less land, I don’t believe they will continue extending their farms. It’s a challenge that I believe can be solved. It’s our collective responsibility, as a planet, to ensure we bridge the gap between the very poor and the very rich because at the end of the day it will affect us all.