African Countries Are Pointing the Way to Sustainable Forestry Management

At the end of September 2011, the National Forest Policy of Rwanda won first place at the annual awards for policies aimed at creating better living conditions for future generations, an award backed by the United Nations. As 2011 was declared year of the forests by the UN, that was the topic of this year's awards sponsored by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The runners-up were the United States and, another African country, the Gambia, with its Community Forest Policy. As African countries are taking home the gold and silver medals for forestry, the question that logically arises is what the rest of the world can learn from two of its poorest nations in terms of sustainable forestry management and forestry investments.

The Republic of Rwanda is an African country, which suffered 65% forest loss between the 1960s and 1990s. The situation was further complicated by the 1994 genocide, which also negatively affected the environment and forests in the country with the increasing demand of wood needed for the reconstruction that followed. The overall degradation of soil, water, land and forestry resources presented enormous challenges to the future of the nation's survival.

However, despite the existing land and population pressure, Rwanda has managed to reverse the declining forest cover. The concept underlying the adoption of environment and forest restoration measures was that taking care of the environment would help reduce poverty and secure the survival of the population that was expected to double over the course of the next 30 years.

The award-winning policy of Rwanda was introduced in 2004 to promote massive reforestation, as the country ratified the Kyoto protocol the same year. The local population was involved in planting activities that promoted species indigenous to the area. Measures also included agro-forestry as well as education about forest management. Forestry investments and sustainable development resulted in a multitude of ecological, social and economic benefits. What the national forest policy managed to accomplish was an increase of 37% in Rwanda's forest cover between 1990 and 2010. Furthermore, Rwanda became a pioneer in the banning of plastic bags by adopting a law in 2008 against the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags.

Among the future challenges before Rwanda's sustainable forest management is the goal to increase its forest cover to 30% of the total country area by 2020, and by 2035, to achieve major forest landscape restoration, as announced by the Rwandan Minister for Lands and Environment at the Ninth Session of the UN Forum on Forests. Considering the progress already made, such a statement does not sound overly optimistic.

While Rwanda's approach to sustainable forest development seems to be more institutionalised, the Gambian model relies on community forestry management. Gambia is known as one of the world's poorest nations with one third of the population living under the international poverty threshold. Nevertheless, Gambia has managed to achieve an 8.5% increase of forest cover during the past two decades.

The essence of the innovative Gambian forestry management policy is the phased approach of transferring state-owned forest land to communities and granting them permanent ownership. Among the positive outcomes of this strategy was also reduction of illegal logging and forest fires. Even though the success of the Gambian forestry policy was not achieved without help from the FAO, the efforts of the Gambian government to leave forests in the hands of the rural population have been highly praised. The intention is to place approximately half of Gambia's forests under community management by 2016.

The internationally recognised success of the forest management policies implemented in these two African countries seems closely related to UN's efforts to turn sustainable forest management into a profitable enterprise which in turn has led to popularity of forestry investments and increasing demand for REDD carbon credits.

In this context, the efforts of African governments to look for ways to promote sustainable forestry development are rather encouraging, especially in cases where local population has the opportunity to participate through community management. This in turn leads to increased social awareness toward forest preservation and emerging requirements for timber companies to spend a percentage of their profit on development of local areas. A recent example is a huge forestry project which the Mozambican government authorised in the province of Zambezia. Among the benefits that the project is expected to bring to the local community are the building of social infrastructure and construction of a solar panel factory in Maputo province.

As timber and forestry investments seem to be rather in vogue these days, thinking about sustainable forest management is all the more necessary. Therefore, it is strongly advisable for governments to focus on ways to promote and implement measures for forest preservation and the international recognition of Rwanda's and Gambia's forestry policies is a strong signal directed not only at other African countries but at the rest of the world as well