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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

To conserve or not to conserve forests: Time for a Ghanaian referendum

The current moves to mine bauxite at the Atewa Range Forest Reserve has sparked informal animated discussions among biodiversity experts, academia, activists, civil society members, timber operators and concerned individuals, some of whom are calling for a national referendum on Ghana’s Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas (GSBAs).

Nana Akufo-Addo
President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana

According to the proponents, the need for a national referendum arises because the benefits of GSBAs are nationwide in scope, transcending community, district and regional interests and boundaries. Therefore, the decision as to whether their status as protected areas remain the same or not should neither be left in the hands of the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, Ministry of Environment Science Technology and Innovation nor the Executive.

The establishment of GSBAs are part of global measures to preserve the ecological goods and services such as water, food and medicines, provided by biological resources or biodiversity and which makes life possible on earth. Forests are known to possess most of the critical ecosystem values and therefore play a vital role in conserving biodiversity. Covering almost 30 percent of the earth’s land area, forests contain 80 percent of the earth’s biomass and provide habitat for over half of the world’s known plants and animal species.

Therefore, following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the global community established the link between biodiversity and forests, recognised the importance of forests for biodiversity, the contribution of primary forests to biodiversity within countries and the need for protected areas to preserve biodiversity.

As a way of prioritising preservation of forests biodiversity and ecosystems functions, the global community developed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its subsequent multiple multilateral agreements and processes including the Aichi Targets. The goals include addressing the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, reducing direct pressures on biodiversity and promoting sustainable use.

In 1998 with donor support, 30 GSBAs were established by carving out areas with high density of endemic plant and animal species in existing forest reserves. These reserves are predominantly in the Western region with seven in the Eastern, four in the Central and One in Ashanti. These forest reserves were established from the colonial period to post-independence era ranging from 1924 to 1991.

Of the 30 GSBAs, Atewa is the largest covering an area of 23,200 hectares and Southern Scarp is the smallest covering an area of 10 hectares. Both are in the Eastern region.

In an interview, one of the proponents who is a timber operator insisted that the eventual fate of the country’s GSBAs particularly those that are well endowed like Atewa, should be a national decision and not that of an individual entity. He said since they were not gazetted, “we still have opportunity to review the policies, and identify alternative management options for them. I am certain that most of the areas might even be existing only on paper, since they were left unattended to by the Forestry Commission, because it does not have the logistics to manage them.”

The source admitted that the current problem bedevilling the forestry sector is beyond the management ability of the staff, because it is socio-economic in nature driven by increasing population with its associated problems including lack of viable livelihood alternatives.

He explained that alternative management plans for protected forest areas is not to log or to mine. But rather to develop ecotourism infrastructure in the well-endowed GSBAs. He cited the case of Kakum, with the walkway, camp sites and trails so students are able to go there for research, others for recreation and to mingle with and appreciate nature. So Kakum has now become a high income generating protected area.

The source noted that allowing areas like Atewa to lie idle is not the best for the country, adding that government is aware that the area’s huge environmental benefits far outweighs the other considerations. He suggested that in addition to a national referendum on the issue, government should take advantage of the environmental benefits to package the area for appropriate development, so it becomes productive.

Aside its richness in species diversity, Atewa is also famed for being the watershed for three key rivers namely the Densu on which the Weija Dam is built as it meanders into the coastal environs, the Ayensu and Birim. Together, these rivers provide water to about five million Ghanaians in the Eastern, Central and Greater Accra regions.

The Executive Director of the Development Institute, Ken Kinny, lamented that the absence of legal backing for the GSBAs, means nothing much can be done to stop their re-designation from protected areas to productive areas for either logging or mining. He said until then, CSOs with their passion and knowledge will continue to do everything in their power to make government rescind its decision.

Even though Mr. Kinny is of the view that political elites might eventually have their way, he also believes that CSOs are not fighting a lost battle. “It is not a lost battle because, as human beings we have free will, therefore if we have the will to do the wrong, we also have the will to the correct the wrong. I think people have capacity to change, so our political elites should change.”

He explained that because GSBAs are being protected for their high index biological diversity and not just forests, they are under the purview of the Ministry of Environment Science Technology and Innovation, it is their responsibility to initiate steps to gazette them.

Mr. Kinny was convinced that GSBAs and other protected areas including the Ramsar Sites, which are wetlands of international importance, were not gazetted because they were established under donor funded projects. “The problem we have in this country is that most of the initiatives are project based, so as soon as the project ends, the government is unable to continue with the programmes.”

He said what should have been done “is that after the initial mapping and designation, it should have gone through Parliament and backed by law,” adding this was not done and even some of the areas have not been fully mapped out.”

Mr. Kinny did not fully support the call for a national referendum, saying, “it still gets into the hands of our political elites, because ordinary Ghanaians are not going to determine whether there should be a national referendum or not. The political elites need to agree with this.”

He rather proposed a mobilization of the policy community including academia, and the informal ones such as Christian Council, Bishops Conference, Islamic Council, Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, to begin speaking to the issue regarding the GSBAs and Atewa in particular as linked to the total development of the country.

Additionally, Mr. Kinny wants to see certain key individuals rising up to talk to the issue. “I want to hear the following people talking: Prof. Yaa Ntiamoa Baidu, who is a guru on biodiversity in this country; the Okyehene Osafgyefo Amoatia Oforipanye; the President himself; the Senior Minister and Secretary to the President. They should come out and tell us what exactly they think about the issue.”

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang

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