From Indigenous apps to arts festivals, the many ways Africa is restoring itself

Here’s what happened at day one of the Global Landscapes Forum Accra

A native mago tree in northern Ghana. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
30 October 2019
30 October 2019

This post is also available in: French

Read the summary of what happened at day two of the Global Landscapes Forum Accra here.

Ecosystem restoration, as defined by U.N. Environment, is “a process of reversing the degradation of ecosystems, such as landscapes, lakes and oceans to regain their ecological functionality.”

But to some, ecosystem restoration is reverting landscapes back to the way they once were, before humans buried their natural states under infrastructure and development. To others, it is the transformation of degraded lands into ecosystems that also serve social and economic purposes in new renditions of natural harmony.

To Rosemary Atieno, the Kenyan country lead for Women’s Climate Centers International, it is alleviating the increasing difficulties for women to supply food, water and education to their children and families. To Nana Ama Yirrah, executive director and founder of Ghanaian social rights organization COLANDEF, it is giving local and Indigenous communities secure legal tenure to their lands and inherited properties.

To her royal highness Sylvia Nagginda, the Nnabagereka (Queen) of Buganda, it is revival of civility, and the “core social values of respect, dignity, responsibility and integrity among others.”

From the perspectives of people from across the African continent, ecosystem restoration is taking the form of whatever solution they need to the increasing challenges and perils being brought on by climate change, as were shared by farmers, African royalty, entrepreneurs, artists, academics, organizational heads, youth and others who spoke on the first of the two-day Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Accra, Ghana on 29–30 October.

Ghanaian TV show host and actress Michelle Atoh moderated plenaries on restoration at the event. Musah Botchway, Global Landscapes Forum
Ghanaian TV show host and actress Michelle Atoh moderated plenaries at the event. Musah Botchway, Global Landscapes Forum

Titled “Restoring Africa’s Landscapes: Uniting Action from Above and Below,” the GLF followed on the heels of four days of meetings of the partners and leaders of the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), a restoration effort to which 28 African countries have now committed to restore 113 million hectares. The day was capped off with a performance from Ghana’s Grammy-nominated afro-roots star and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Rocky Dawuni.

With the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest region, the world’s largest swath of carbon-rich tropical peatlands, great lakes that together hold 27 percent of the world’s freshwater and tropical grasslands that serve as home to some of the most diverse and rare forms of animal life on the planet, the landscapes of Africa play a major role in shaping the future of human life on Earth. Aside from the carbon sequestration power of undisturbed peat soils and healthy forests and savannahs, African ecosystems are vital to feed the bodies and wallets its booming population, which is on track to account for half of the global population growth by 2050.

Ecosystem restoration could be said to be experiencing a heyday, with global leaders at September’s U.N. Climate Action Summit recognizing the power of “nature-based solutions” to climate change, such as planting trees on farms to improve nutritional value of food crops and growing seagrass meadows to drink carbon from the atmosphere. Preluding that, the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which will begin in 2021, being adopted by the General Assembly in March, only one year after its conception.

A participant at the Forum. Musah Botchway, Global Landscapes Forum
A participant at the Forum. Musah Botchway, Global Landscapes Forum

And in this growing recognition for the benefits of restoration, which focuses heavily on the Global South, Africa is often the continent that many development and environmental organizations decide to invest in first, be that through financial aid, social empowerment or technical support.

But how Africa is being helped was given little airtime on the Forum’s first day, which rather focused on how Africa is helping itself.

Some 800 people living and working across the continent took part in a series of large plenaries and smaller group discussions to exchange the solutions they’re already using and developing in their own communities – the ways they’re currently adapting to their homes and ancestral lands being rapidly thrown into a dangerous state of flux.

“Sometimes I think we already have everything, but failure to connect all these solutions draws us behind,” said Desmond Alugnoa, co-founder of the Green Africa Youth Organization, concisely elucidating the purpose of the day.

“You cannot tell people to stop doing what is feeding them if you do not give them an alternative,” said Basiru Isa of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development, highlighting that the necessity of shedding ways of life that lead to degradation must be met with new ways forward, examples of which were given throughout the day. Many came from young entrepreneurs, paving the way for the continent’s demographic shift to having 60 percent of its population under the age of 25. While the AFR100 meetings focused more on larger-scale projects such as sustainable plantation development and reforestation, the initiatives presented at the GLF were often smaller and run without the help of outside investment or support.

Schoolchildren sing about climate change and restoration on stage. Musah Botchway, Global Landscapes Forum
Schoolchildren sing about climate change on stage. Musah Botchway, Global Landscapes Forum

Kennedy Kirui, a tech entrepreneur in Nairobi, has worked with Google designers to develop an app called AfriScout that sends geospatial data to the cellphones of semi-nomadic pastoralists in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania in seven Indigenous languages, advising them on where there is fodder for their animals to graze.

David Ojay, whose grandmother educated her children with the money she earned from fishing in East Africa’s Lake Victoria, now communicates the lake’s degraded and polluted state to its surrounding communities through art, poetry and music, culminating annually in the NAAM arts festival, as the language of climate change is unfamiliar. Overpopulated hyacinth plants plaguing the waters are now used by locals to create marketable woven goods. “We weave baskets out of a threat that is killing and choking our lake,” he said.

Constance Okollet, a Ugandan farmer, has joined forces with Atieno and others to form Women’s Climate Centers International, which they envision to be “one-stop shops” where rural women can come for simple, hyper-localized technologies to help the food production, water sanitation, healthcare and education challenges their specific community is facing.

“Development partners need to listen, be adaptable and understand that restoration will take place in different forms and shapes according to needs, and there is no one blueprint,” said Stewart Maginnis, global director of the nature based solutions group at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In somewhat of a metaphor for the many restoration methods needed in Africa, 11-year-old Ghanaian deejay star Erica Armah Bra-Bulu Tandoh, known as DJ Switch, noted, “A tree cannot make a forest, but many trees.”


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