Tropical forests are essential for sustainable growth in Africa. They also have economic, environmental, and social implications that extend far beyond the continent.
Although they cover less than 7% of the earth’s land surface, tropical forests are home to approximately 50% of all living things on earth. Yet these forests are being cleared at a rate of 18 million hectares a year.
While the economic value of forests is difficult to quantify precisely, an estimate by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, which was kick-started by the UK Government, forecast that the loss of biodiversity from deforestation would cost the global economy up to $4.5 trillion a year.
One industry that could be impacted heavily is the pharmaceuticals industry. Tropical rainforests have provided key ingredients for an estimated 25% of pharmaceuticals and prescription drugs derived from rainforest plants are used to treat cancer, heart disease, bronchitis, arthritis, diabetes and other conditions. Yet only around 1% of plants have been tested for medicinal properties and deforestation means species are lost before they can even be explored.
Tropical forests also matter in the fight against climate change. As the ‘lungs of the earth’ forests breathe in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen in exchange. When a forest is cleared, the trees release this stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Globally, deforestation represents around 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot solve climate change without also addressing deforestation.
Deforestation also affects rainfall. At a local level, it changes rainfall and water run-off patterns making the remaining forests drier. It could also have global impacts with scientific models showing that the complete destruction of tropical forests in central Africa would reduce rainfall in southern Europe and the upper and lower US Midwest.
The impact of deforestation on ecosystems and animal habitat could also have other far-reaching impacts. For example, France’s environment Minister, Ségolène Royal, told a conference last year that researchers believe deforestation in West Africa increased the likelihood of the Ebola epidemic in 2014. The destruction of the natural habitat of fruit-eating bats, which carried the Ebola virus, likely drove them towards human settlements to find food.
Africa is home to around 18% of the world’s tropical forests. The second largest tropical forest on the planet is located in the Congo Basin in central Africa and extends for around 3 million square kilometres – which is larger than the entire land mass of Argentina.
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Despite their economic, social, and environmental importance, Africa’s tropical forests are under threat. Almost 90% of West Africa’s coastal rainforest has already been destroyed and deforestation in the Congo Basin has doubled since 1990.
Logging and agriculture continue to be two of the biggest threats to Africa’s tropical forests. The unsustainable production of palm oil is one of the biggest drivers.
Palm oil is found in about half of all packaged products sold in supermarkets. It’s already a $50 billion global industry and is projected to rise to $88 billion by 2022. And Africa is expected to be the next growth spot for palm oil production.
It is significant then that seven African Governments – Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Liberia, the Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone – have agreed to protect more than 70% of Africa’s tropical forests from unsustainable palm oil production.
Equally significant is the support shown by large consumer-facing companies like Nestle, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever; palm oil producers including Feronia, GVL, Socfin Group, and Wilmar; and civil society organisations such as Conservation International, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, and the World Wide Fund for Nature, among others.
This support is crucial because governments are unlikely to be able to stop deforestation from unsustainable palm oil production on their own, as evidenced by the ongoing battle to combat illegal logging. Success will require a diverse range of stakeholders working together to deal with the intertwined issues of environmental protection, human rights (indigenous peoples who live in forested areas), agricultural production, and ensuring the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
New technology tools will also help. For example, Global Forest Watch is using rapid advances in satellite imaging to increase transparency and improve access to forest-related data. Anyone with a computer can create custom maps, analyse forest trends, and download actionable data. In Panama, drones are being used by local communities to monitor their forests in real time all year round. Elsewhere, governments are exploring how blockchain technology could be applied to tracking land rights allocations
Together, these emerging technologies and partnership models could help save Africa’s forests.