This article was written by Nobel peace prize winner Wangari Maathai in September, shortly before her death. It addresses some of the main issues she and the Green Belt Movement were intending to raise at the UN climate summit, which starts in Durban, South Africa, on Monday
In 2011 the worst drought in 60 years engulfed the east of Africa, forcing millions into a desperate struggle to survive. Poor governance intensified the consequences: a drought, not unusual for this part of Africa, became a famine, in which untold human suffering was guaranteed.
Governments could have planned for the drought (after all, some regions haven’t seen good rains for four years) and helped their people adapt to the realities of global warming. They didn’t.
This is the International Year of Forests. What we know is that intact forests are essential to stabilising local climates and securing the livelihoods of Africa’s farmers, herders and entrepreneurs. However, some governments, institutions and organisations are aggressively promoting the planting of exotic species of trees at the expense of indigenous ones as a solution to both drought and climate change. It is not.
One of the most important environmental benefits indigenous forests provide is regulating climate and rainfall patterns; through harvesting and retaining rain, these forests release water slowly to springs, streams, and rivers; this reduces the speed of water runoff and with it, soil erosion. Indigenous forests and trees also play an important role in spiritual and cultural life.
Exotic trees, like pine and eucalyptus, cannot offer these environmental benefits. They eliminate most other local plants and animals. Like invasive species, they create “silent forests” that are devoid of wildlife, undergrowth and water. Tragically, exotic tree plantations in the tropics have taken the place of indigenous forests, often through “slash and burn” practices that destroy biodiversity and turn what used to be forest into agricultural or grazing land.
Through the Redd+ initiative (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), the international community has committed itself to protecting and rehabilitating indigenous forests. Redd+ is intended to save the world’s remaining indigenous forests, whose destruction is responsible for about 17% of climate-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) pumped into the atmosphere each year. It also seeks to bolster the capacity of communities to mitigate and adapt to the negative effects of climate change (including drought and floods).
For governments and private enterprise to support Redd+, and at the same time welcome the planting of exotic trees at the expense of indigenous forests, is a contradiction. This is especially true for countries like Kenya, where indigenous forest cover is less than 2% and mainly remains in watershed areas. Establishing plantations of exotic trees in watershed areas and on private farms is bad environmental, economic, and social policy. In the long run, communities will be without reliable rainfall, rivers, productive soils, and food.
In Kenya and other tropical countries more than 60% of the population still live in rural or forested areas. These communities will become poorer and more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – and the nation will experience more severe and regular droughts that in turn will challenge livelihoods, food security and industry – since Kenya (like Brazil and, increasingly, China and India) relies on hydropower.
The benefits provided by indigenous forests and trees are worth trillions of US dollars each year. No market value is given to clean drinking water, clean air and food that sustains life, unlike the dollars that can be assigned to timber sales. The lure of money obscures the real value of essential environmental services and livelihoods of local communities as they are sacrificed for short-term economic gains.
Environmental damage can take a long time to take root. Some years back Kenya imported a eucalyptus clone from South Africa. In South Africa now the government’s Working for Water programme has as its main objective the removal of eucalyptus and other invasive species from sources of water. Today we are seeing that many rivers in Kenya have less water than they used to, or have dried up altogether.
Governments must demonstrate a commitment to standing forests and the rehabilitation of degraded forests. This can be done only if national laws that encourage continued deforestation and forest degradation are reformed; and if communities are supported to plant appropriate trees. If none of this happens, considerable financial resources will be invested without achieving reductions in poverty and other development gains. As the world can see in the east of Africa, there is no time to waste.
By Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement