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Ghana’s forests: To conserve or not to conserve

In 1998, when the 30 Global Significant Biodiversity Areas (GSBAs) were established in Ghana, the purpose included promoting the status of areas of biological diversity hot spots in the country. Eleven years down the line in 2009, the Forestry Commission (FC) was committed to ensure the conservation of these areas under the REDD + package. This meant that these areas were under strict protection.

But now in 2019, some Ghanaians are expressing concern that the public institutions with mandate to protect the country’s biodiversity resources such the FC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appear to be yielding to pressure to redesignate these areas to allow active production in them.

Ama Kudom-Agyemang in Accra is examining the factors that have necessitated the redesignation of these high biodiversity protection areas into production areas for logging and mining. Her findings will be presented in a series of articles dubbed “Ghana’s Forests: To conserve or not to conserve.”

The first in the series is a reproduction of her article titled “To Conserve or not to Conserve: Ghana’s Forests and Climate Change,” publicised in the Ghanaian Times in 2009.

Nigeria REDD+
Experts have acknowledged the role of forests as a solution to combat climate change. Photo credit: UNDP Cambodia/Chansok Lay/Oddar Meanchey

As the debate on how best to address climate change advances, experts have identified the role of forests as one of the solutions that has the potential to combat the phenomenon.

According to the Forests Dialogue’s Initiative (TFD) on Forests and Climate Change, “of all the options for responding to climate change, forest-related mitigation measures are, in the short to medium term, among the most practicable and cost-effective. They also have very low opportunity costs and can make an immediate and direct contribution to sustainable development and rural livelihoods.”

Scientific research indicates that emissions from deforestation and forest degradation of tropical forests, are known to be contributing about one-fifth (1/5) of the global greenhouse gases.  Greenhouse gases absorb and transmit direct heat from the sun to the earth, thus increasing the earth’s temperatures, and consequently, changing the climate. These gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, are released into the atmosphere through deforestation and pollution among other things.

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Economic analysts estimate that it might be cheaper and better to address deforestation than to address other areas of climate change. This is necessary in order to take advantage of the intricate relationship between forests and climate change – On the one hand forests can mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon, while on the other they can contribute to climate change if they are degraded or destroyed. In turn climatic changes may lead to forest degradation or loss – which exacerbates climate change further.

The experts are of the view that applying forestry sector-based approaches to addressing climate change, has several advantages.  A statement issued by the TFD noted that the forest sector has a unique ability to simultaneously reduce emissions, capture and store carbon, and lessen the vulnerability of people and ecosystems to climate change.

These can be attained through measures such as sustainable forest management, forest conservation, reforestation, forest restoration, afforestation, wood-based bioenergy generation, and the use of sustainably produced wood products as substitutes for emissions-intensive materials.

In view of this, the TFD proposes that the forest sector approaches should be considered as part of the global approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Indeed, the international community is favourably disposed to the forest sector approaches to mitigating climate change as was evident during the December 2009 15th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dubbed COP 15, in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The initiative to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation also known as REDD is in response to the proposed forest sector approaches. The REDD-Plus initiative has been developed as the financial mechanism for combating climate change through reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the conservation and sustainable management of forests Under it countries endowed with tropical forests will be financially remunerated in exchange for the conservation of such forests in particular, among other activities.

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This means that countries that have rich ecosystems including forested areas and wetlands, which also provide natural sinks for carbon dioxide, qualify to benefit from the REDD initiative.  Therefore, Ghana is a potential beneficiary. 

The challenges that have plagued the country’s forestry sector over the years, such as rapid population growth and urbanisation, expansion of the industry base, expansion of cocoa cultivation and farming lands to cultivate other cash and staple crops, have all contributed in no small measure to the devastation of the nation’s forests. 

Ghanaian Professional foresters also blame the situation on the low value placed on forests by the owners.  They are of the view for instance, that “cocoa cultivation and the growing of other cash and staple crops have been major causes of deforestation, especially as farmers have entered and virtually cleared huge areas of what once used to be dense high forest zone reserves, to cultivate their crops.”

Interestingly, some farmers also blamed industry for the devastation of forests.  A number of them maintained that timber merchants connive with chainsaw operators who enter forest reserves to illegally fell trees… and once the way is paved into such reserves, they also seize the opportunity to establish their farms.

The good news is that the country can still boast of blocks of ecologically well stocked forests that have been conserved as part of the nation’s forest reserves for non-productive purposes (strictly no logging), national wildlife parks, and Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas (GSBAs). 

Since all of these are virtually non-productive, they would obviously qualify for funding under REDD-Plus.  But as at now nobody really knows how much money would be given to the country for setting these forests aside for purely conservation purposes.  Some Ghanaian economists are of the view that “remuneration for setting forests aside for carbon absorption purposes only, must take into account the socio-economic and cultural dependence of local people on forests as the opportunity cost.”

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Under the GSBAs, 30 separate blocks of mostly productive forests totally 300, 000 hectares were conserved.  At the time about 11 years ago, the country received about US$ 6 million funding from the World Bank and Global Environment Facility, for establishing the GSBAs. 

Again, these economists suggest that the amount paid at that time for the establishment of the GSBAs, was woefully inadequate.  The argument is that the estimated worth of nutrient cycling, raw material provision, erosion control, climate regulation, and other ecological functions of the tropical forest is estimated to be US$ 2, 000.  If a calculation is made based on this figure, then it means that Ghana should be reaping about US$ 600 million annually from the GSBAs as against the funding that was released. 

Based on this calculation some of the Ghanaian economists are advocating the conversion of the 300, 000 hectares of GSBAs to high yielding productive forest reserves.  The mathematics of it is that at an achievable growth rate of 25m3 (cubic metres) per hectare per year for US$ 100 per cubic metre, the country could be realising US$ 750 million annually. 

However, the other side of the mathematics has to do with the monetary worth of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by tropical forests.  Analysts say worldwide, tropical forests remove about 4.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere yearly.  This, they say is valued at a realistic price of 13 billion pounds per year. 

For Ghana and Africa in general, a decision has to be made eventually on “whether to conserve or not to conserve our forests” for the sake of combating climate change. The Forestry Commission that has responsibility for the nation’s forests and wildlife resources is certain to go for the package under REDD-Plus, rather than to convert the rich biodiversity endemic areas into reserves for logging.

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang


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