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Growing Demand for Food Increases Pressure on Sub-Saharan Africa’s Forests


In an ambitious plan to eradicate poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015. Setting out 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), the agenda pledged that, “no one will be left behind.’

Meanwhile, a growing demand for food combined with increasing pressure on ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa means there will be ongoing challenges to attaining these goals.

While the UN has pledged to eradicate world hunger, countries in sub-Saharan Africa have also committed to reducing or halting deforestation. As such, achieving SDG 2 (on ending hunger, among other things) and SDG 15 (on sustainably managing forests, among other things), means hurdles will need to be overcome to ensure a food supply that doesn’t rely solely on imports.

The International Institution for Environment and Development (IIED)’s research in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania found significant contradictions between agricultural and forest policies.

“If targets to reduce and reverse deforestation remain in place, then agricultural production could suffer, with serious implications for achieving food self-sufficiency,” says Xiaoting Hou-Jones, a researcher in the IIED’s Natural Resources Group.

Increasing rates of agricultural production

Since 2015, agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa has grown at 2.4 percent – the fastest rate globally. It is expected to expand by more than 10 percent by 2025. Research indicates that the expansion of commodity crops into forest areas is typically linked with industrial, large-scale monoculture production.

Interestingly, while food production in sub-Saharan Africa is increasing, new research on deforestation risk due to commodity crop expansion in sub-Saharan Africa, suggests that it is small- and medium-scale farmers who are driving commodity crop expansion for domestic and international markets rather than large-scale companies.

Commodity crops are defined as any crops that can be traded. They can also be stored for any length of time, are nonperishable and transportable. They typically include cocoa, corn, grains, palm oil, bananas, coffee, soy, tea, rubber, cassava, and rice.

Aerial image of deforestation for an oil palm nursery in Cameroon

Using a mixed-methods approach, researchers from Stanford University carried out analyses at the global, regional, and local scales. They found cocoa was the fastest-expanding, export-oriented crop in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for 57 percent of global cocoa expansion from 2000 to 2013, at a rate of 132,000 hectares a year. Yet, this amounted to just 0.89 percent of foreign land investment.

Esla Ordway, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. candidate in earth system science at Stanford explains that in the case of the oil palm expansion in Cameroon, the researchers have a poor understanding of who the small- and medium-scale farmers are in the oil palm sector, and what’s driving their expansion.

She adds that consumers are placing more pressure on multinational agricultural companies to carry out environmentally responsible practices. This could be a factor in why large-scale corporations aren’t expanding as fast in commodity crops as small- and medium-scale farmers.

“Many of the zero-deforestation commitments made by large, foreign companies prohibit them from leasing and clearing large tracts of primary forest,” says Ordway.

“In a country like Cameroon, where we found evidence of small- and medium-scale farmers clearing more land for commodity crop expansion than large-scale companies, most uninhabited land remains forested.”

Yet, the demand for food supply in sub-Saharan Africa is anticipated to triple in the next 33 years.

“While it can be challenging for a foreign company to navigate the complex nuances of different land tenure systems, people from the area have a much better handle on the intricacies allowing them to gain access to land more fluidly,” says Ordway.

Mass deforestation and foreign investment

Ordway cites a 2009 example where a US-based firm was awarded 73,000 hectares of land for agriculture in Cameroon. The development became the center of controversy after it was realized that government-recognized ownership of the land differed from local perceptions of who owned the land. As such, this quieted the company’s development.

While deforestation rates in Africa remain low compared to Southeast Asia and South America, there is growing speculation that this could change given the increasing investment by foreign agricultural companies. Already the expansion of agriculture associated with export markets has influenced deforestation in the tropics.

“Soy and cattle pasture expansion in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, often driven by demands from consumers in far-off countries, was a global deforestation hotspot in the early 2000s,” says Ordway. “Similarly, Indonesia achieved the highest deforestation rate in the world by 2012, largely resulting from oil palm expansion fueled by a global rise in demand for vegetable oils.”

Since 2005, though, large-scale landowners have acquired 22.7 million hectares of land across sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated one-half to two-thirds of the region’s remaining agro-ecologically suitable land is currently under forest, representing nearly 30 percent of tropical forests globally.

“What we seek to highlight is a growing influence of distant markets on agricultural expansion in Africa,” Ordway adds. “If a rapid shift towards export-oriented agricultural expansion goes unchecked, we risk losing regionally and globally important forest areas.

Loss of biodiversity

One example is the Congo Basin, home to approximately 10,000 species of tropical plants, 1,000 species of birds, 700 species of fish, and endangered wildlife, including bonobos, forest elephants, lowland and mountain gorillas, and chimpanzees, that inhabit its 500 million acres. The World Wide Fund for Nature has identified the region as one of 11 deforestation fronts as a key area of deforestation, with projected losses of 12 million hectares by 2030.

Unfortunately, given the expected population increase in sub-Saharan Africa and the rising food demand, the expansion of agricultural land is inevitable. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency’s IMAGE model projects that there will be a 29 percent reduction in forest cover in the area by 2030.

Meanwhile, recent research from the IIED indicates that it is not possible to halt the loss of natural forests in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania by 2030 because agricultural sector policies and plans don’t include strategies for the level of agricultural intensification that would be needed to do so.

“Forest and biodiversity policy makers and key stakeholders appear to underestimate the extent to which natural forests in sub-Saharan Africa could be lost to agricultural expansion needed to meet growing food demand,” says Hou-Jones. “It is vital that policy makers acknowledge and better understand the existing and future trade-offs between food production and conservation in order to develop practical policies that sustainably manage this region’s natural resources.”

Hou-Jones adds, though, that it’s important that smallholder farmers aren’t blamed for the loss of forests, as they are just trying to realize their right to food and other basic human rights. While technological alternatives exist, such as external inputs and agro-ecological practices with zero external inputs, many small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to these options. This is due to poor government services or a lack of interest to invest in them due to insecure land tenure.

Ordway agrees and says that it is an important part of identifying effective strategies by engaging with small- and medium-scale farmers in the decision-making process to ensure their livelihoods without bringing too much disruption to the forests.

What can we do?

The future for small- and medium-scale farmers remains unknown. Yet, given the rate of expansion from large-scale corporations in the tropics it doesn’t bode well for sub-Saharan Africa. Research is ongoing with many people actively involved in trying to find the answers; however, it’s likely that the solutions will vary from country-to-country and region-to-region. 

The power and duty to resolve these problems lie primarily with national governments, although the international and travel community can also play a key role. Buy locally sourced products instead of from large multinationals, such as at local markets and street vendors. Find out where the product comes from, with the aim to invest in local people. If purchasing wood products, check that they come from recycled or certified sustainable wood sources. Our daily choices, both at home and when abroad, can make a huge difference.  

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