3 June 2021 (UNEP)* — When African Ministers of Environment voted to adopt a green stimulus initiative in December 2020 that tied environmental incentives to economic and social recovery in a post-COVID-19 world, the mandate to build back better following the pandemic sprang to life.
The African Green Stimulus Programme that was agreed by 54 ministers at the eighth special session of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) reaffirmed the continent’s commitment to protect and sustainably use natural resources.
Noting the link between destruction of nature and disease, it called upon countries to better protect and restore biodiversity and ecosystems, which will help prevent future pandemics, while addressing the triple planetary emergencies of biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution.
“We want to harness the opportunities which this approach brings for the continent,” said Barbara Creecy, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment of South Africa, who also serves as President of AMCEN.
The programme feeds directly into the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization, which will roll out from 2021-2030, and is designed to revive and restore the natural world at a time when forests, grasslands, waterways and species are deteriorating rapidly.
Africa has a unique opportunity to restore its ecosystems and develop its natural resources in a manner that can be a lesson for the rest of the world.
Africa holds 30 per cent of the world’s mineral reserves, 65 per cent of its arable land and 10 per cent of its internal renewable energy sources, and its fisheries are estimated to be worth $24 billion.
But Africa’s challenge is immense. It must quickly implement programmes to restore and protect ecosystems while addressing issues such as climate change, security challenges, food security and biodiversity loss.
The region must also wrestle with the cruel irony that it is the most exposed region to the adverse effects of climate change despite contributing the least to global warming.
“Africa has a unique opportunity to restore its ecosystems and develop its natural resources in a manner that can be a lesson for the rest of the world,” said Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, UNEP Director for Africa.
Leading by example
Programmes big and small are already under way to address some of Africa’s greatest ecological challenges. The Pan-African Action Agenda on Ecosystem Restoration reaffirms the continent’s commitment to the UN Decade.
Across the Sahel region that stretches from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, the Great Green Wall is already the world’s biggest ecosystem restoration project.
Launched in 2007, it calls for ecosystem management within a given area defined by each member country to transform economies across the Sahel.
The project recently got a $14 billion pledge from donors including France, the World Bank, European Union, African Development Bank, and other funders, and aims to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, sequester 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million jobs across 11 countries.
In South Africa, the Working for Water restoration project is helping to cull invasive trees from Australia, Europe and the United States that are depleting the water table, driving erosion and worsening wildfires.
It is also creating jobs for local communities in clearing non-native trees and rehabilitating cleared areas while allowing them to sell the felled wood.
South Africa also has more focused projects that tackle social, political and environmental issues at once. The Princess Vlei Restoration Project works in a low-income area to plant endangered vegetation over a 12-hectare site. The area, disadvantaged by apartheid-era spatial planning, was at one time supposed to house a shopping mall.
Restoring forest landscapes
Africa’s rainforest cover is the second-largest in the world, after the Amazon. The Congo basin peatlands, for example, store nearly 30 per cent of the world’s tropical peatland carbon – that’s about 20 years worth the fossil fuel emissions of the United States of America.
But nearly 3 million hectares of rainforests in Africa are lost each year, resulting in soil degradation and unstable weather patterns that reduce the region’s gross domestic product by 3 per cent annually.
The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) is a response to that crisis; it aims to record 100 million hectares of restored degraded forests by 2030. To date, 30 African nations have signed on to AFR100, committing to recover 126 million hectares of deforested and degraded land.
Mangroves are vital to global health, given that they absorb 10 times as much carbon dioxide per acre per year as other trees and their swampy, brackish ecosystems nurture birds and fish while shielding coastal communities from storms and flooding.
UNEP’s research has found that over 67% of mangroves have been lost or degraded to date, including many along Africa’s coast.
Community projects in Tanzania are working with farmers to help restore mangroves on land that has been lost to rice farming, while Mozambique is rallying community support to dig trenches that will allow the flow of tidal water to restore mangroves that were destroyed by cyclones.
Nigeria, meanwhile, launched the “Mangrove for Life” project in 2020 to increase mangrove cover by at least 25 per cent and committed to creating Marine Protected Areas to enhance conservation efforts. Nigeria’s mangrove forests have been devastated by oil production and prospecting in the last 50 years.
“These are all very encouraging initiatives and are a foundation on which we must all build to safeguard Africa’s environment and in so doing the livelihood of its people,” said Koudenoukpo.
“Africa’s environmental health is essential for the future of the region and the planet. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration offers an opportunity for the continent to further consolidate its efforts in protecting nature and the planet.”
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