2017-09-06 |

African forests threatened by export-oriented agricultural expansion

Baum Forests in Cameroon are at risk (Photo: CC0)

Export-oriented and industrial agricultural expansion in Africa could threaten the continent’s valuable tropical forests, researchers from Stanford University have warned. According to a study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in April, multinational companies are increasingly looking to Africa to expand production of in-demand commodity crops such as soy, cocoa and oil palm as land in other world regions is getting scarce. This could cause the same levels of destruction as seen in Asia and Latin America unless measures are introduced to prevent deforestation. “Sub-Saharan Africa, with its abundant cheap land and labor, would seem an obvious next step for multinational companies looking to expand farther,” reads Standford’s press release. Since 2015, agricultural production in the region has grown at the fastest rate globally, and cropland is predicted to expand more than 10 percent by 2025. But lead author Elsa Ordway suggests that “in Africa, we have the opportunity to take lessons learned from other regions and recommend preventive policies.”

For the study, the scientists assessed the effects of domestic- and export-oriented agricultural expansion in recent decades in order to find out how international demand for commodity crops, such as cocoa, is affecting sub-Saharan Africa’s tropical forests, which are second in size only to the Amazon. Analyses were conducted at the global, regional and local scales. Although deforestation rates in Africa remain well below those in South America and Southeast Asia, the region has lost an area of intact forest about the size of Iceland since 2000. The authors found that commodity crops are further expanding in sub-Saharan Africa, increasing pressure on tropical forests. They write that four Congo Basin countries, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire were most at risk in terms of exposure, vulnerability and pressures from agricultural expansion. These countries had the highest percent forest cover and lowest proportions of potentially available cropland outside forest areas. The study results indicate that foreign investment in these countries was concentrated in oil palm production (81%), with a median area receiving foreign investments of 41 582 thousand hectares. Cocoa, the fastest expanding export-oriented crop across the region, accounted for 57% of global expansion in 2000–2013 at a rate of 132 thousand hectares per year.

According to the study, deforestation from agricultural expansion in sub-Saharan Africa is often associated with small-scale farmers, consisting of subsistence farming and commodity crop production for domestic and international markets. However, more recently, investments in large-scale, industrial plantations in sub-Saharan Africa are on the rise. In recent years, multinational companies have bought up a land area larger than Costa Rica in the heavily forested Congo Basin, mostly for crops such as oil palm and soy. As multinationals move in, they are more likely to acquire land by clearing intact forest due to property conflicts resulting from the region’s land tenure complexities. This could have devastating consequences, the scientists warn, since these forests are an important source of local income, food and subsistence means in addition to regulating climate, safeguarding water quality and controlling disease. But the authors say that Africa could be spared the massive deforestation seen in other regions by implementing policies that prioritize forest conservation and local control of the land. “Civil society, policymakers and private companies can benefit from many years of trial-and-error with anti-deforestation policies in South America and Southeast Asia to design more effective interventions in sub-Saharan Africa,” said co-author Eric Lambin. The study recommends policies that alleviate poverty in local regions and incentivize forest conservation. Measure could include encouraging shade cultivation of crops such as cocoa and ensuring that small and medium-scale farmers dominate crop cultivation instead of industrial plantations. (ab)


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