To preserve ecosystems, intra-Africa trade must improve, says CIFOR scientist

Eba'a Atyi, an expert on African forestry management and economics with the Center for International Forestry Research. Photo credit; CIFOR
30 August 2018

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NAIROBI (Landscape News) – As Africa experiences rapid population growth and development, demand for forest products within the continent is on the rise.

This demand has amplified trade, especially within the informal sector where there is no control or monitoring, leading to potentially damaging results for the environment.

In the past, most demand on Africa’s forests was from foreign markets, with the informal sector supplying domestic and national markets using practices that would be considered illegal by international standards, according to Richard Eba’a Atyi, an expert on African forestry management and economics with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Already the extent of deforestation and land degradation amount to almost a third of Africa’s landmass. Without implementation of good practices and transparent trade, this puts Africa’s forests at a greater risk.

Eba’a Atyi, originally from Cameroon and with more than 30 years in the field, shared his views, shedding light on one of the topics under discussion at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Nairobi.

Q; How important are Africa’s forests?

A: Our forests are very important for the rest of the world because we have the second biggest forest base in Africa, the Congo Basin Forest. When you are thinking of global climate change or stability, certainly, we have a bigger role to play for the benefit of the whole world. But these forests are also very important for ourselves — we should always have these two aspects in mind. Our wealth — and the fact that we are contributing to stabilizing world climate through our forests. And as such we should also get support from the whole world so that we maintain, manage and preserve our forests.

Q: In your 30 years of experience working with forests, what are some of the major changes that you have seen?

A: At the beginning, at least in Congo Basin and Central Africa, forests were first seen as obstacles to agriculture, and land covered by forests was considered at least by politicians as lands free to be converted to other uses.

Thereafter, the forest was seen as a potential economic asset for developing industries in Central Africa, like forest industries for the processing of timber. And more or less by then it was a matter of the private sector and governments taking concessions.

As we go on, there was a bigger change in forestry in favor of the involvement of local stakeholders in forest management, involving the communities and local populations. In the last 10 years, more attention is being given to forest conservation highlighting the role of forests in climate change and mitigation; so that is more or less how it has changed.

Q: What are the main challenges facing Africa in terms of forest management?

A: There is a growing demand for forests products because of demographic and economic growth. In the past, most of the forestry and initiatives were to meet the demands of overseas markets but African markets have become — and continue to become — important. So the challenge is how do we organize intra-Africa trade of forest products, timber products and other products and how do we implement good standards in these markets so that we do not destroy our ecosystem, so this is a more regional challenge that we have in Africa.

It concerns mainly timber, but we are seeing even wood fuels like charcoal and also non-timber forest products are being traded from one country to the other. So now we need to think of the regional, national and domestic markets within the African region. 

Q: What roles do governments need to play for better forest management?

A: There are a lot of governance problems, especially domestic and regional markets are mainly supplied by the informal sector that are not controlled by governments and they have all kinds of informality and illegalities happening, which is a real problem.

To improve the situation at national and regional levels, governments have a big role to play, and they should also involve local stakeholders. We have had the situation with timber, we have been advocating for each government to have a public procurement policy to make sure that when undertaking development projects (with the support of the donor community) they do not get supplied with illegal timber from illegal sites.

None of the countries in the COMIFAC areas (Commission for the Forest for Central Africa) have such policies and we have been pushing — and there is a need for better coordination.

Q: What are the main issues facing timber harvesting in Africa?

A: The biggest challenge that we have is on development initiatives that use lands covered by forests. These development initiatives would come from agriculture, mining, infrastructure and logging. African countries are looking for economic development based mainly on natural resources and use of land as I see in most of the 10 countries in the COMIFAC area. If this is not well-planned or well-coordinated among sectors then we may end up with problems.

Q: So what are the silver linings in the future of African forests?

A: People are aware of the situation; it was very different 15 years ago. It was like people did not even know. But now people are linking extreme climate events that are happening everywhere; in Europe, Asia, Africa to climate change. I think more effort will certainly be done. It started with the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, the biggest polluters are getting out, but even inside countries like the United States people are more and more aware. Because of the awareness, I believe there are things that are being done at the technical and policy levels.

Q: What other initiatives are you involved in?

A: We are running an observatory for the monitoring of forests in Central Africa. We have a set of indicators that we are following up, we produce reports, policy briefs so that people can get needed information easily.

Q: Why is the GLF an important event?

A: The forum is very important because there are many things happening and people need to exchange their experiences from all over the world and also meet in a mutual place. Forests, landscapes and youth also need good investment and the Landscapes Forum gives a place to have stakeholders and investors together to exchange and perhaps make decisions about the future of tropical forests.