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Balancing agriculture, deforestation, climate change: A new challenge for African countries

AN axe hanging over his shoulder, a matchstick to burn huge logs and shrubs he had cut down the previous week, Mr Cain Moyo looks somehow satisfied that he has found the right virgin land that will boost his agricultural productivity that has been waning over the years.
Mr Moyo, a communal farmer in a semi-arid area of Plumtree in Zimbabwe is among a new crop of farmers who have been targeting virgin forests to clear new farmland to grow their crops.
“My previous field is tired,” he said, “I think it no longer has enough nutrients to grow crops because even last year when the country recorded significant rains, I just got a few cobs for the family.”
He is among many other farmers who have been turning to the country’s forests to find new rich pieces of land to cultivate crops. What is happening with Mr Moyo mirrors what happens in many parts of the country and in Africa at large.
In Zimbabwe for example, the country embarked on the land reform programme post-2000, resulting in hundreds of families being resettled on farms, some of which were expansive forest areas.
For many African countries, Zimbabwe included, agriculture remains the primary economic activity for millions of people, hence farmers have been targeting new lands to seek new opportunities to grow crops. The sudden push and interest in agriculture has increased the demand for land, but unfortunately at the expense of the natural habitat.
Acres of forests are now under threat mainly from farming. This has seen agriculture, especially that which is being carried out in an unco-ordinated way, being among major contributors to deforestation in many African countries.
“Zimbabwe for example is experiencing an average of 15 percent deforestation rate per year,” noted Dr Lizzie Mujuru, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Environmental Studies at the Bindura University of Science Education.
“It is a regional problem; South Africa is among the highest in the region at 24 percent, Madagascar 23 percent, Eswatini 21 percent, Malawi at 12 percent and Zambia at 7.1 percent. This is according to the global forest watch of 2020.”
Dr Mujuru was speaking to a panel of journalists who physically and virtually attended a media roundtable held in Mombasa, Kenya titled “Challenges and opportunities in forest management for sustainable development in Africa in the context of climate change.” The round table was organised by the African Forest Forum (AFF), a pan-African non-governmental organisation with its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.
AFF is an association of experts who share the quest for and commitment to the sustainable management, use and conservation of the forest and tree resources of Africa for the socio- economic well-being of its people and for the stability and improvement of its environment.
Experts contend that it is not necessarily a matter of competition between agriculture and the need to preserve the continent’s forestry but there is need to come up with policies that are harmonic in nature.
“We are aware of the priorities of underdeveloped countries when it comes to agriculture. It’s not a matter of competition. It is about national development,” said Dr Almani Dampha, a former policy officer with Africa Union Commission and an Environmental Consultant.
“Even if we want to preserve forests, we have to accept that human needs come first.”
So, in essence, experts acknowledge that while preservation of forests in many African countries is given low priority compared to many other economic activities, at least there must be standing national policies that ensure that forests are not completely neglected. For example, in the Sadc region, countries have come up with the Sadc Protocol on Forests/Forestry of 2002.
Its aim is to promote the development, conservation, sustainable management and utilisation of all types of forest and trees, trade in forest products and achieve effective protection of the environment, and safeguard the interests of both the present and future generations.
The policy recognises that sustainable forest management is essential to the alleviation of poverty and recognizes the role played by women, forest communities and private sector in forest management, planning, implementation and developing forest-based industries.
“Such (Sadc Forestry Policy) shows that we must come up with an African forest management programme. You can already see that there is political will at sub regional and continental level. We just need to underscore real investments in the sector, because it is not enough,” added Dr Dampha.
Since agriculture is regarded as a primary economic activity, carrying it in a manner that preserves forests must not be a top-down approach. Experts therefore, acknowledge that it must not be left to the government alone to protect the forests, but farmers must also take responsibility as both sectors mutually impact each other.
Farmers must come up with ways on how they can preserve forests, as research has shown that while clearing forests for growing crops may have an immediate benefit for the farmers, it also contributes to climate change, which comes back to haunt the same farmers through floods, droughts, storms, among other adverse impacts that are now associated with the global phenomenon of climate change.
“Agriculture systems must now start adopting a climate smart agriculture approach,” said Mr Elvis Ngwa, manager Climate Change Fokabs Canada.
Climate Smart Agriculture is an emerging approach which is gaining wide acceptance as an important approach permitting farming system to maximize production in the face of the changing climate situations, with the potential of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This means that climate change adaptation and mitigation should be directly incorporated into agricultural development planning and strategies.
This is done by integrating the management of water, land and ecosystems at landscape level. One way of applying climate smart agriculture that saves forests is increasing yield per unit of land through intensification.
This simply means instead of clearing large areas for agriculture, farmers come up with smart ways of increasing yield in small pieces of land through intensive cropping. This can be done through use of technology but the knock-on effect is that farmers do not have to destroy large areas of forests to produce enough food.
Globally, many countries following the adaptation of the Paris Agreement on climate change, have also started tightening the screws on the marketing of agriculture products that are produced without due consideration to the protecting of forests.
“While we might push for the growth of agriculture ahead of forests, we must also know that external influences are beginning to creep in. For example, some European countries, as an indirect way of protecting forests and reducing emissions are now demanding that produce that is grown after deforestation will not enter their markets,” said Mr Ngwa.
This means that while African countries push for more land to grow crops, there might come a time when they have to look at whether this will not also close exports markets for the same products. In the midst of all this debate about agriculture and management of forests, one thing that stands out is that there is need for African countries to balance the two in a sustainable manner.
“Governments must start setting up reasonable funds for sustainable forest management, and over time there will be an improvement in balancing agriculture and forest management. It is not just about Africa but the whole world.
African decision makers must however, not wait to be dictated from outside,” noted Professor Labode Popoola, who is a Professor in Forest Economics and Sustainable Development at the University of Ibadan, and a former Vice Chancellor of Osun State University, Nigeria.
While experts are trying to come up with a balance, on the ground life goes on among most farmers. They are busy looking for new lands to grow crops.
“Do you think the country will ever run out of forests? Leave us to look for land to grow crops and feed our families,” retorted Mr Moyo, switching on a matchstick to burn the latest portion he had cleared for the day.
– Sunday News
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