An African Account of Ecosystem Service Provision

Forest, Africa, ecosystem services, A recent article in the journal Ecosystem Services examines the range of ecosystem services in Africa, the threats to them, and policies to preserve them. It touches on an issue related to Monday’s Landscapes Blog post on sparing land for nature. While the authors recognize the importance of protected areas for biodiversity conservation, they also emphasize the need for solutions to come from communities and address the variety of land uses within a geographic area. One of the authors, Louise Willemen (EcoAgriculture Partners and Cornell University), provides an overview of the main findings related to the merits of community-based solutions to environmental and livelihood issues.

Human dependence on the services nature provides is most apparent in developing countries like those in Africa, where people are often poor and reliant on natural resources for their incomes. Many African people depend on ecosystem services for the provisioning of wood for cooking, poles for fencing, wild animals for protein, water for drinking, or even products to sell. And yet even with a rich stock of resources, African nations are still listed as the world’s poorest.

Agricultural production dominates the economies of many African countries (e.g. Cameroon, Ethiopia, Malawi and Nigeria), stimulating the conversion of large areas of natural vegetation. However, the Structural Adjustment Programs during the mid-1980s and 1990s – aimed at transforming developing country economies into more market-oriented systems – undermined industrialized production by removing subsidies on improved inputs. This led to a decrease in large-scale agriculture and a diversification of livelihoods into activities such as the small-scale planting of fast growing crops (e.g. tomatoes) and crops planted year round (e.g. cocoa and coffee), and a subsequent dependence on natural areas. Policies that help curb degradation and promote the delivery of ecosystem services within these landscapes are urgently needed to protect both the natural systems and the people who now depend on them.

In addition to land degradation from unsustainable resource use, climate change-induced water scarcity, desertification, and lower crop yields places the African continent in a particularly vulnerable position. With many African governments prioritizing improved livelihoods of their citizens and recognizing the threats from climate change, there is growing momentum to safeguard ecosystem services.

Variations in climate and vegetation across Africa result in a highly variable distribution of the types of environmental services important to local people. In the humid forests of West Africa, communities rely mostly on non-timber forest products (e.g. bushmeat) coupled with small and medium scale agriculture. In contrast, water and grazing resources are important ecosystem services in the arid regions of Africa, in addition to the draw for tourism. Inhabitants of coastal countries derive their livelihoods from both terrestrial and marine systems, depending on the availability of harvested resources. For example, along the eastern coast of Zanzibar in Tanzania, communities engage in both farming and harvesting of seaweed.

Due to the rich biodiversity and serious threats to ecosystem services in Africa, scientific work has focused on the ecological and social impact of extraction of natural resources and other human activities in protected areas. However, the creation of strict protected areas has not proved wholly successful in meeting these challenges, and it has in fact generated considerable conflict with local communities. As a response to these needs some protected areas allow for various kinds of access to local people living around them.

Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), in which locals collaborate with conservation organizations to develop ways to improve both socio-economic and ecological conditions, presents an option in areas where land tenure and resource rights are strong. The recent establishment of large trans-boundary protected areas in southern Africa (Peace parks) demonstrates how this concept can be taken to scale. But as African nations continue to strive to meet biodiversity conservation targets, new protected areas must not only benefit biodiversity but also should be carefully planned to integrate the needs of local people and the services nature provides to them. Large conservancies or trans-boundary protected areas that include villages could play a key role as conservation areas and migratory corridors while also maintaining many ecosystem services, if they are under CBNRM programs. For example, the 23 villages in Namibia’s Salambala Conservancy benefit from grass, poles, and reeds for thatching and fencing, hunting, grazing, wild fruits, wild foods, fish, medicinal plants, and firewood all provided by the preserved natural areas.

Many issues, including vulnerability to climate change, rapid urbanization and land grabbing by foreign nations for food and biofuel production are also impacting biodiversity and other ecosystem services in Africa. And while international and national policies and payment for ecosystem services programs such as REDD could benefit some African nations, ultimately local incentives are needed in most countries. CBNRM initiatives already implemented in many African countries appear to offer potential for both safeguarding ecosystem services and improving livelihoods. Solutions to these issues will have to come from the African people.

The full study is available freely online: Egoh, BN, PJ O’Farrell, A Charef, LJ Gurney, T Koellner, HN Abi, M Egoh, L Willemen. 2012. An African account of ecosystem service provision: Use, threats and policy options for sustainable livelihoods. Ecosystem Services 2: 71-81.

Photo credit: Manyewu Mutamba (CIFOR)
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