African Nations Commit to Game-Changing Reforestation Plan

An ambitious agreement announced at the Paris climate talks would create 78 million acres of forest by 2030.
Tree saplings are watered by hand in a reforestation project in Ghana. (Photo: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Dec 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Africa could be a much greener place in 15 years.

An ambitious new program announced this week at the Paris climate conference anticipates the restoration of 386,000 square miles of degraded and deforested land across the continent. The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) has secured commitments from six nations to restore 78.3 million acres and has pending promises from four more countries. The program has been officially adopted by the African Union, and international partners have pledged more than $1.5 billion in various forms of financial support.

The program, organizers announced, would offer economic benefits for Africans while providing millions of new trees to sequester carbon and fight the effects of climate change.

“More than 700 million hectares of land in Africa show opportunity for restoration, so this will need to be a continent-wide endeavor,” said Sean DeWitt, director of the Global Restoration Initiative at the World Resources Institute, one of the lead partners in the program.

That 700-million-hectare figure comes from analysis by WRI that identified forest areas around the world that could be restored to natural forests or some combination of agroforestry. “Areas that are suitable for restoration are typically degraded in some way,” DeWitt said. “Although there are many definitions of degraded land, it often means the land is not realizing its full environmental and economic productivity.” He cited deforestation, loss of soil nutrients, erosion, and overgrazing as contributing factors.

DeWitt said each country is at a different stage in developing its restoration plans and strategies and that the initial commitments have given the program “incredible momentum.”

Jerome Frignet, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace, said he worried the AFR100 program placed too much emphasis on restoration. “Reforestation programs are much more expensive than preventing deforestation,” he said, noting that many areas in need of restoration may require extensive soil restoration.

DeWitt acknowledged that restoration does not necessarily tackle the issue of ongoing deforestation, which is often fueled by illegal logging, corruption, and lack of enforcement, and should not be considered a replacement for efforts to fight that issue. “Some forests, when lost, can’t be replaced, due to their unique history or biodiversity,” he said. “Restoration alone can’t stop deforestation in those countries. We still need a concerted effort to strengthen law enforcement, improve monitoring of deforestation, and provide sustainable livelihoods for local people.”

Frignet also worried about how many of the replanted trees would be nonnative species intended for lumber, the paper industry, or other agricultural uses. “It might make more economic sense, but then it’s not reforestation. It’s a crop. It’s a monoculture that’s bad for soil and biodiversity.”

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Indeed, although the exact details of individual restoration projects have yet to be determined, AFR100 includes agricultural uses such as tree plantations and managed woodlots among its restoration plans. DeWitt said that would take some of the pressure off natural forests “by providing alternative sources of wood for charcoal and other uses.” He pointed to a recent set of principles for “landscape approaches,” established by the Convention on Biological Diversity, that could be used to guide projects to address both conservation and commerce.

The most obvious focus for the restoration work is economic development for many of Africa’s most impoverished communities. Frignet said he hoped elements of the project eventually would also focus on issues such as habitat fragmentation, ecological and migratory corridors for wildlife, and prioritizing habitat restoration for endangered and threatened species.