Africa’s deforestation rate is four times faster than the world average and is of particular concern for climate change because of its important role as a carbon sink.

Though the relationship between the economic crisis and deforestation isn’t on the surface an obvious one, the drivers of deforestation in Africa are only likely to become more pressing as the recession sends global shockwaves – affecting the cost of living for those who can least afford to spend more of their income on feeding themselves and their families. This is likely to exacerbate deforestation and the use of other natural resources as people seek to increase their income.

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Land tenure is thought to be a massive hurdle for conservation and particularly in the prevention of deforestation, with less than 2% of Africa’s forests under community control. The Guardian argues that in order for the currently negotiated Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) credits to be effective  secure property rights are essential (REDD put simply is where you get paid for not destroying an ecosystem, providing financial incentives for conservation):

“Land tenure and forest governance are also key factors that will determine the success or failure of any REDD initiative, and the mechanisms by which payments and benefits are shared will be critical” (IIED).

The Economist argues that ‘The obvious economic explanation is that the over-exploitation of animals and plants is an example of the “tragedy of the commons”. If no one owns the wildlife or the land on which it lives, the behaviour that is individually rational—poaching, clearing land and so forth—may be collective folly. Trade ban or no trade ban, without enforceable property rights, the underlying tragedy remains’.

The logic is that, if communities have direct ownership of the land that are taking timber (or, indeed, any wildlife from) there is greater financial incentive for conservation: “Africa’s forest communities already generate millions of jobs and dollars in domestic and regional trade, and in indigenous livelihoods, but current laws keep some of these activities illegal and also undermine opportunities to improve forest management” (Rights and Resources Initiative). Resolving property rights, because of its direct link to resource use and deforestation is argued to be a first key step to addressing the causes of climate change.

However, some argue that deforestation is less an issue of property rights and more about the lack of governments’ control of access to wildlife and the land it occupies, through both social structures and formal rules. Land reforms alone are unlikely to be a panacea for deforestation – governments need to support local management and enterprises so that people have direct control over the resource and more financial incentive to ensure the sustainability of it.

The recession has only served to bring the debate over conservation, deforestation and effective government solutions into even sharper focus.

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