Will Africa Take Full Advantage of its Biodiversity?

Tea plantation in Rwanda. © Nick Kontis

To mark the UN Day for Biodiversity 2019, the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) spoke to Dr. Jessica Thorn, a Climate Change Science Fellow of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences - Next Einstein Initiative (AIMS-NEI). Her viewpoint as a scientist illuminates the opportunities and challenges in the conservation of Africa’s - and the world’s - biodiversity today:

NEF: Here we are yet again for the UN Day for Biodiversity 2019. What does this day specially remind you of?

Jessica Thorn: This year’s theme is “Our Biodiversity, Our Food and Our Health”. This day is an opportunity to reflect on how biodiversity has a critical role to play in global food production, which in the next 30 years will increase between 50–70%, with a doubling of the African population, particularly in urban areas. Across the globe, land is becoming increasingly scarce, subdivided and fragmented, and we need to intensify production. Since the 1960s, the Green Revolution was an attempt to address malnutrition in developing countries, and employed higher yielding strains of crops, bioengineered seeds, heavy irrigation, industrial agriculture, and new chemical fertilizers. In recent decades, we have learnt that these methods lead to unsustainable farming practices. On the other hand, agro ecological principles advocate the role of faunal and floral species in maintaining crop yield, good quality freshwater and marine, insects for maintaining pollination services, regulating pests and diseases, and nutrient cycling. This day is an opportunity to consider key factors that will scale up conservation beyond protected areas. It is a day to consider conclusions of the recently published assessment IPBES report for Africa that says: “Biodiversity and nature’s contributions in Africa are economically, socially and culturally important, essential in providing the continent’s food, water, energy, health and secure livelihood, and represent a strategic asset for sustainable development and achievement of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.”

NEF: What examples of success and innovation in the conservation of Africa’s biodiversity are worth sharing with readers today?

JT: The International Day for Biodiversity is also a day to reflect on the important progress that has been made in Africa building environmental awareness, advancing science and evidence-based decision making, and behavioral change in consumption towards sustainability. Since 1970, the protected area coverage in Africa has more than doubled, according to the United Nations Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Centre. African nations have played essential roles in charting the path from recent global initiatives to mainstreaming biodiversity in government decision making, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity on the progress towards reaching the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (particularly Target 11), and to some of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) core indicators. Recently, people who care about conserving nature are starting to think more deeply about how communities fit into conservation efforts. Conservationists have begun to think that if their planning took more account of people’s rights and needs, it might be more effective. Within the last decade, they have started paying more attention to balancing livelihoods and conservation, and to “social equity”. This means thinking about fairness. This includes asking questions about who makes the conservation decisions, how people benefit from or pay for nature conservation, and what’s recognized as valuable.

NEF: While Africa is home to a rich and diverse animal, marine and plant biodiversity, the World Bank has at One Planet Summit in March 2019 in Nairobi warned that the continent is experiencing loss of its biodiversity. How would you reflect on this caution?

JT: The recent IPBES Assessment report illuminates the unprecedented loss and decline of biodiversity which is due to human activities, and therefore undermining human well-being and nature’s contribution to people. Unregulated land cover change, that is, habitat change and over-exploitation, has been the key cause of biodiversity loss to date. We are increasingly aware of the potential vulnerabilities arising from anthropogenic climate change, which is likely to be a dominant driver of change in the future. Most of Africa’s growing population (70%) will largely live in poor urban peripheries, in hazardous slopes, and riverbeds in locations of diffuse pollution and exposed to flood, drought, water-borne and vector-borne pathogens, exposed to erosion or landslide risks. These are only a few of the multiple, converging stressors and vulnerabilities to human and non-human species which require urgent action.

NEF: What solutions should policymakers and stakeholders give to population growth and urbanization, which you just spoke about, and which UNEP’s publication The State of Biodiversity in Africa (2016) define as creating “immense challenges in reconciling human well-being with environmental and economic prosperity”?

JT: There is no silver bullet to such wicked problems. However, a range of existing policies, strategies, plans and program at the national, sub-regional and regional levels can be better utilized and up scaled. I’ll touch on four: First, environmental safeguards to curve land use. Second, land tenure which is another key area for African leaders to prioritize, clarifying land tenure rights. Third, climate resilience requries stepping up climate adaptation and resilience in Africa, and will mean governments acting more preemptively to emerging climatic variability and change, such as heat waves, increase in temperature and intense and variable rainfall. Fourth, complex systems thinking, since it is increasingly recognized that many intractable problems persist when sound policies are not translated into action.

NEF: Could you share some examples of cases where African governments have responded exemplarily to direct overexploitation of wildlife and fishery species (including from illegal hunting and trade), and the spread of certain non-native invasive species — in response to some of what you just said?

JT: To tackle illegal wildlife trade (e.g., ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales) African governments have made important strides in increasing alternative economic incentives, improving consumers’ awareness of the destructive impact on Africa’s ecosystems, and the ineffectiveness of traditional medicine. Responsible environment-friendly tourism is promoting legitimate business and communities to develop livelihoods that incentivize stewardship and connect people to conservation. The Southern African Development Community has several framework policies for the establishment of trans-frontier conservation areas. Private-sector partnerships are increasing skills transfer, improving access to investment finance, and expanding employment and procurement opportunities. Monitoring and tracking trade is increasing, with the recognized lack of available data on trends and the broader economic costs of wildlife trafficking. UN Environment is encouraging parliamentarians to stiffen penalties for wildlife poaching. Nevertheless, wildlife trafficking remains among the most profitable illicit trade sector, and populations continue to be highly threatened by extinction. African governments also are working to increase the awareness of actions to reduce the spread of invasive species. Alien plants species in Africa are equally on the rise. For example, since 2000 more alien insect pests of eucalyptus trees have spread to other African countries from South Africa, with 6–10% of invasive species comprising its land cover. The larger grain borer beetle, (Prostephanus truncatus), destroys maize and cassava crops of smallholder farmers in Tanzania. One example of action is that of the extended public works program Working for Water, that runs over 300 programs utilizing a variety of mechanical methods, chemical methods, biological and integrated control.

NEF: Cyclones Idai and Kenneth which hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe have killed more than 1m people and destroyed over 100,000 homes and half a million hectares of crops. What are your thoughts on how to contain the ongoing crisis and help mitigate similar events in the future?

JT: There are many lessons which can be learnt from the recent cyclones, but a few key lessons learnt are to: (1) Upscale the use of climate and weather forecasts in local and national planning, supported by sufficient budgeting; (2) Improve early warning systems utilizing ICTs; (3) Train adequate security, medical and emergency response personnel to handle such situations; (4) Determine clear emergency response plans and evacuation routes, secure temporary shelters to accommodate exposed victims and ensure adequate food, medical and water supplies; (5) Improve coordination internationally through management committees, local and/or traditional authorities, and neighborhood networks; and (6) Integrate the use of ecosystem and community-based disaster risk reduction.

NEF: Scientific research plays a key role in safeguarding biodiversity. What roles do you think behoove African biodiversity scientists today?

JT: Evidence-based decision-making helps people reach informed decisions about policies, programs and projects by presenting the “best” available evidence from research. We have a deficit in empirical data, and many regions in Africa remain understudied (cf. Friedmann et al. 2018; Thorn et al. 2016). Transdisciplinary science can propose potential solutions which can help avoid the misuse of scarce resources. African research institutions need to play a greater role in global platforms to drive the research and development agenda, providing solutions that are home-grown and resonate with existing incentive structures. To this end, scientists need more evidence of the effectiveness of policies, such as economic cost benefit analyses, impact analyses, public attitudes and understanding. Moreover, we need to foster closer and longer term relationships with decision-makers and implementers who will champion pragmatic solutions for sustainable African social-ecological futures.

By the Next Einstein Forum/Kevin Eze

Next Einstein Forum

The Next Einstein Forum is a platform that connects science, society and policy in Africa and the rest of the world — with the goal to leverage science for human development globally.

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Next Einstein Forum

The Next Einstein Forum is a platform that connects science, society and policy in Africa and the rest of the world — with the goal to leverage science for human development globally.