Tim EntwisleSeeding Africa

There are some 675 million hectares of forest in Africa, now. This forest (only one tenth of it primary natural forest these days) is being removed at the rate of 3.4 million hectares per year – for firewood, timber, unsustainable food and medicinal harvesting, and urban expansion.

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Deforestation in Africa

The decade before last the forests were being ‘lost’ at a rate of 4 million hectares per year, so things have improved, a little. Just as important are efforts to plant forests, either where they were before (reforestation) or in new places (afforestration), particularly with local species.

Apart from political will and progressive policy, what Africa needs are skills and expertise. That’s the big message from ‘Forest 2011’, the pithier title of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank International Forestry Workshop on Afforestation in Africa: Constraints and Opportunities.

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Deforestation in Nairobi

I’m at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, attending the first three days of this five-day workshop. This means I’ll spent my entire first visit to Nairobi in hotel and conference rooms, or travelling between the two. But for a good cause.

What do we want? A technical partnership. When do we want it? Well, yesterday would have been good. Discovering and sharing technical information seems to be at the core of the workshop and what this group of representatives from 12 African countries wants.

From a seed bank perspective it’s not enough to bank the seeds. You all knew that, I hope. The Doomsday Vault concept might be a good way to get attention on seed banking but it isn’t the end game. It was clear from the talks today that many of the seeds are difficult to store and germinate, and attention is needed on the care of new plantings and creating a regenerating vegetation (preferably of local species).

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Burkina Faso, Tropical West Africa

Two examples so far. Burkina Faso, in tropical west Africa, has a human population of 14 million, relying on 7 million ha of forest. It’s true to say ‘relying on’ because 97% of people depend on forest resources for energy. In addition 80% of the population are farmers, and forests are lost at the rate of 100,000 ha per year for both energy generation and agriculture.

Burkina joined the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership in the year 2000, with the signing of an Access and Benefit Sharing agreement. Since then 80% of their flora has been collected, including many rare and endemic species threatened by non-sustainable use. A living collection in Burkina Faso has also been created to provide additional domesticated wild species for local use, as well as a local herbarium and information database. Along the way three PhDs have been completed, formal and informal training has been provided in-country as well as Burkina Faso staff spending time in Kew laboratories.

In the United Republic of Tanzania, in eastern Africa (just south of where I’m now sitting), there are 16 million hectares of gazetted forest reserves, but another 16 million hectares of ‘unprotected’ forests. Biodiversity conservation is now part of the government forest policy and the President promotes the use of indigenous plants. More than 700 million trees have been planted over the last five years, with a mix of local and exotic species. The Tanzania Tree Seeds Agency, part of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, has in five years (I think) already provided 91 tonnes of seed from 200 tree species, 60% of them local.

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United Republic of Tanzania, Eastern Africa

There is a concern swirling around in my mind about planting indigenous tree species in places where trees have never grown before (afforestation) but maybe that’s just an academic question for less urgent times. Carbon offsets and fighting climate change may be enough to silence my doubts, and that was a topic of discussion today.

So far the mood and analysis is positive. It’s still true, as the lady next to me on the plane over said, that the destruction of African forests is continuing at a depressing rate. But it is reversible.

Images: my first three pictures are from the Drakensberg in South Africa, and Lesuto, taken the last (and only other time) I’m been on the African continent, in 2005. The final picture is from the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in South Africa, from the same trip.

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Tim Entwisle

About Tim Entwisle

Dr Tim Entwisle is a scientist and scientific communicator with a broad interest in plants, science and gardens, and Director & Chief Executive of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Previously he was Director of Conservation, Living Collections & Estates at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and prior to that, Director of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens for eight years. Read Tim's full blog at Talking Plants

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