About 65% of the continent's productive lands have been degraded, on which at least 60% of the African population depends. Desertification is affecting 45% of the agricultural land. Urgent, massive and all-encompassing interventions are needed.
Aridity, unproductivity, desertification, deforestation. These words contain the state of health (or rather of disease) of the African territory. The territory means food, work, and survival for millions and millions of people. At least 60% of Africans depend on land and forests. Today, about 65% of the productive land on the African continent is in a state of degradation, while desertification is affecting 45% of the territory.
It is also estimated that over 4 million hectares of forest disappear every year. It is to remark that the African continent is home to 17% of forests globally and 31% of "other wooded lands". From mangroves to mountain forests to tropical ones. It is also home to the second largest rainforest on the planet: the Congo Basin.
Saying it in other words, deforestation means reducing natural barriers to defend the extreme effects caused by the climate crisis, floods, mudslides and landslides. And increase the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere. In one way or another, destroying the habitat always causes side effects: as much as 90% of the population of the continent still uses firewood and coal to produce heat, light and above all for cooking, which is among the other the major cause of respiratory diseases on the continent.
Forests are also a primary source of medicines used by a large part of the population (around 80%). There are 5,400 medicinal plants documented in Africa. A heritage to be safeguarded. Indeed, to be saved.
FAO and the African Union Development Agency (NEPAD) in their recent report highlight the need for rapid intervening actions on the African landscape devastation to restore the ecological balance. This ecological balance seems long lost and whose effects and damages are visible not only in the natural environment but also in the daily life of individuals who live and interact in that devastated environment.
The goodwill of individuals and environmental associations engaged in tree planting is no longer enough - albeit very important -. Massive and all-encompassing interventions are needed - to put it in the words contained in the report - to bring the forests back to those now bare and now useless landscapes. Even if the report itself reminds the importance of associations and individuals and traces the role played in Kenya by the environmentalist Wangari Maathai and his Green Belt Movement in protecting the environment, in implementing concrete actions - even before governments and international agencies took care of it - and in spreading an ecological awareness on the African continent.
Africa has one billion hectares of arid lands, and of these 393 million are in need of absolute restoration. These are the Great Green Wall areas, that includes the Sahel and Sahara region and on which the efforts - and ambitions - of African governments, supported by UN agencies, have focused. The goal is to strengthen ecosystems and challenge climate change. 132 million hectares of cultivated land are as far as degraded, to which could soon be added land already vulnerable to climate change.
Urging to reverse the course
Reversing the loss of forests and soil degradation requires first acting on the main causes of degradation, which on the one hand are anthropogenic, but on the other hand, come from natural factors, such as the climate. It all requires large investments. African governments are doing their part, working to restore more than 100 million hectares through the AFR100 (African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative) program, 200 million hectares through the Pan-African Agenda for Ecosystem Restoration, and an additional 100 million hectares through the Great Green Wall project. Initiatives that, however, seem to respect neither their schedules nor the expectations.
Such as for the Great Wall, for example, which should cover an 8,000 km long strip of land once completed, but where currently only 18 million hectares are of restored land. And this is a project started in 2007. A commitment that has nevertheless not failed to give results in terms of the number of beneficiaries, of restored availability and fertility of the soil, of income-generating activities for many families. The deadline for the 100 million hectares to be restored would be 2030.
We recall that in 2019, the UN General Assembly has proclaimed 2021-2030 period a decade of ecological regeneration. Perhaps some slow-moving actions are expecting further special funds to increase their speed.
Good news, however, is that regarding the AFR100. Under this agreement, African governments had pledged to restore 100 million hectares by 2030. Today, this initiative, which brings together 31 governments, has exceeded the initial target, reaching 129,912,800 hectares in June 2021.
It is by far the most significant success of the Bonn Challenge under whose aegis the projects take place. The African continent constitutes, in this case, over 60% of the total share committed under their initiatives.
The overall difficulties are of course not lacking. In addition to the continuing need for long-term funding to reforest and restore agricultural areas, land tenure and property rights must also be dealt with. Important challenges in a continent where the land and its possession mean not only survival but involve ancestral family relationships.
Moreover, while actions go positively in one direction, with specific projects, the situation worsens in another. Although millions of hectares of land are being restored this is not enough to address the scale of the problem. In the decade 2010-2020, only 11 out of 58 (19%) African countries and territories showed an overall increase in forest cover.
Of course, working on reforestation and the restoration of arable areas not only helps prevent or mitigate the risks of climate change, but also creates virtuous conditions for the increase of jobs, for the security and stability of communities and nations themselves.
These efforts help also to foster, study and apply resilient and sustainable food systems that in the long term could decrease climatic migration, and the abandonment of villages - and infertile lands - for urban agglomerations not always able to accommodate too high a number of families and populations fleeing hunger and misery.