Africa’s tropical forests teem with biodiversity, support at least 100 million people and play a vital role in combating climate change. But they are under threat from agricultural commodity production. Urgent cooperation is needed to remove deforestation from commodity supply chains. Proforest’s Abraham Baffoe explains why.

In November 2016, seven African heads of state made a collective public commitment to sustainable palm oil development at the UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh.

The Marrakesh Declaration for the Sustainable Development of the Oil Palm Sector in Africa was developed under the umbrella of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 (TFA 2020) Africa Palm Oil Initiative. Ministers from countries representing nearly 70% of Africa’s tropical forests signed the landmark agreement. It was an important step in protecting these forests from the threat of unsustainable palm oil development.

Africa's tropical forests encompass the Guinean Forests of West Africa and the vast rainforest of the Congo Basin. Half of the Guinean Forests’ plants and nearly a third of their animals are found nowhere else on the planet. The Congo Basin contains the world’s second largest contiguous tropical forest zone, after the Amazon. Covering more than 251 million hectares and stretching across six countries, the Congo Basin forest area has been called the world’s "second lung". It represents a quarter of the total carbon stored in tropical forests globally, according to estimates.

Together, the forests of Africa store an amazing 171 gigatons of carbon. They also boast a rich biodiversity of more than 20,000 plant species, 2,000 birds, and 600 amphibians. They host 400 mammal species, including three of the world’s four great apes: bonobos, gorillas and chimpanzees.

Africa’s forests, and particularly the Congo Basin, are home to some of the world’s oldest indigenous peoples. These include the Bambuti, or Mbuti, of Congo; the Baka of Cameroon; and the Aka of the Central African Republic. While estimates of the numbers of forest-dwelling indigenous people in Central Africa vary from between 130,000 to 920,000, it is widely accepted that approximately 150 distinct ethnic groups call it home.

But Africa’s forests are under increasing pressure from agricultural production of goods such as rubber, cocoa and palm oil. Cocoa production is expanding in Africa at a rate of 132,000 hectares every year. Between 2000 and 2013, growth in African cocoa production accounted for 57% of global cocoa expansion.

Though palm oil originated in tropical West Africa, the region is now being called a ‘new frontier’ for the good. Global companies are increasingly looking to West Africa to feed the insatiable desire for the most popular vegetable oil on the planet.

In Africa, palm oil is used everywhere, from homes to factories. Most countries in West and Central Africa are net importers of the crop, despite it growing abundantly there. Investment in oil palm could both meet this domestic need and bring much needed economic growth to the region. But we need only look to the experience of Southeast Asia to see how intensive production of oil palm can lead to massive levels of deforestation.

The Africa Palm Oil Initiative (APOI) brings together stakeholders from government, the private sector and civil society to agree on national and regional principles governing sustainable palm oil. Through a collaborative process, stakeholders decide on the governance and stewardship of natural resources; zero net deforestation; biodiversity protection; equitable benefit sharing; land rights; local livelihoods and food security; smallholder inclusion; and promoting sustainability certification.

Of the ten palm oil-producing countries who joined the initiative, seven have developed national action plans to implement these principles. For these seven, the next challenge is securing the resources to take action. The national APOI teams are also seeking to identify synergies with other initiatives that are already working on other commodities in their jurisdictions, such as cocoa. This could help all the initiatives accelerate their impact.

In 2010, several private sector companies made bold commitments to remove deforestation from major commodity supply chains by 2020. This sent a clear message that forest conservation is critical to achieving global climate goals. But with fewer than 1,000 days left to meet these commitments, commodity-driven deforestation continues. The need for action is urgent. On May 15, TFA 2020 will host its annual General Assembly in Accra, Ghana. This will bring the global forest community together on a “Sprint to 2020”, to help eliminate commodity-driven deforestation.

One set of actors alone cannot achieve the change we desire. Government, the private sector and civil society must work together. There was celebration after the declaration in Marrakesh, but we must remember that this agreement is not the end goal. We need to focus now on delivering concrete action on the ground.

For Africa’s forests, and for the people who depend on them, there is no time to lose.

The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 (TFA 2020) Africa Palm Oil Initiative is coordinated by Proforest on behalf of TFA 2020 and with funding support from the UK Department for International Development through its Partnership for Forest Programme.

It is working with government, private sector and civil society stakeholders in 10 African palm-oil producing countries: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone.