Africa’s Environment Day: a call to action for improved environmental governance

Photo © Romy Chevallier/ SAIIA

Africa’s Environment Day is celebrated on the 3rd of March each year. It is an important event which contributes to raising awareness of pressing environmental challenges for Africa. It also highlights the importance of environmental sustainability in achieving the continents development goals, and the centrality of the continent in these discussions.

African countries need to grow their economies to meet the needs of their people. However, this must be done whilst ensuring the vitality of the environment and underlying ecosystems.

Appreciation of the value and direct contributions of important ecosystems to our everyday living is vital to reaching sustainable development in the most comprehensive sense. In the past decade the international community has become more aware of the non-market values associated with nature’s ‘services’. Healthy and resilient ecosystems, such as tropical and dryland forests, wetlands, grasslands and mangrove swamps and coral reefs, all deliver important economic, ecological and social co-benefits that support poverty alleviation and development objectives.

Despite the weighty scientific evidence pointing to the importance of ecosystems, they are being degraded, lost or poorly managed in many contexts across the world. In 2014 alone, over 1,200 rhinos were lost to poaching. Between 2010 and 2012, some 100,000 African elephants were similarly killed. Deforestation rates have drastically increased, while 32% of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion.

As Africa’s Environment Day is celebrated in 2015, many important lessons of recent years are still not adequately reflected in the development actions being pursued by governments, particularly in the extractive sector. The causes of Africa’s ecosystem loss and habitat destruction include population growth; economic development; large-scale commercial agriculture and aquaculture expansion; urbanisation; the demand for energy; and new infrastructure projects. Just as governments across the continent are acquiring new wealth from recently discovered oil, coal and gas deposits, there has been a corresponding spike in exploration and mining activities in sensitive ecological areas. Added to this, climate change is having an impact on the growth and productivity of many important ecosystems.

In Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, for example, wetlands and estuaries coincide with fossil fuel deposits and related infrastructure developments. In northern Kenya, the West Indian Ocean Rim’s important mangrove area and fisheries breeding ground, Lamu, has been earmarked for the development of a new deepwater port. In KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape of South Africa, heavy mineral sands mining projects are located in important dune forest ecosystems. Similarly, gas is being prospected for in the water-scarce and ecologically unique Karoo region in the hinterland of South Africa. In east Africa, oil discoveries have been made in the tropical Congo Basin rainforest and the Virunga National Park – a world heritage site and a Ramsar wetland. In Botswana’s globally important Okavango Delta, riparian countries are discussing mining and water storage projects.

Important lessons have emerged from SAIIA research on how human pressures compromise Africa’s natural ecosystems and how these are best managed. In the wake of Africa’s extractives boom, the policy community must urgently consider tools to minimise ecological trade-offs and to reconcile economic development and environmental sustainability. Innovative mechanisms have been developed to improve baselines for global ecosystem management and to enhance scientific knowledge to strengthen legal and policy frameworks, institutions and co-operative mechanisms. Ecological assessments can support decisions about the use of ecosystems and their services, acknowledging the multiplicity of these ecosystem values and making decisions that are consistent with their conservation, restoration and sustainable use.

Other measures are also being developed to frame ecosystems in a broader, integrated and multi-use landscape encompassing land, water and coastal resources. Among these are governance models that illustrate the advantages of regulating development activities via zoning; providing for spatial development planning to convert conflicts into synergies; and rehabilitating and restoring damaged ecosystems. These interventions can help policymakers plan their commercial activities to avoid potential conflicts with other habitat users, and to take biodiversity loss and resource degradation into account.

Also, the designation of protected areas (PA), both terrestrial, coastal and marine, have gained international prominence in recent decades, seeking to foster biodiversity and conservation goals while promoting the sustainable use of natural resources and job creation. These conservation management tools, when properly designed and applied in collaboration with communities in their vicinity, can help safeguard the world’s most threatened species and protect their biological resources. PAs can also operate as economic institutions, providing monetary and non-monetary benefits to support Africa’s development priorities. New, innovative approaches to PAs, including through public–private eco-tourism ventures, certification and fair-trade schemes for wildlife products, and monetary rewards for their non-market, ecosystem services, can also generate broader benefits to communities.

All of the above instruments and models are also essential to raise awareness of the importance of ecosystem services, and to map, monitor and value them appropriately. Yet, turning them into sustainable progress on environmental governance will require buy-in by policymakers and other resource users, including the private sector. Beyond the symbolism of Africa’s Environment Day celebration, environmental preservation will require committed hard work and leadership over a longer time horizon.

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