Why American Businesses Should Care About African Deforestation

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Written by Jeffrey Cavanaugh

Across the continent they are disappearing. Masukus and baobabs. jackalberry, marula, and Natal mahogany – tall trees that for centuries spread their limbs and provided shelter, fuel, and food for man and beast.

Now, however, Africa’s forests are coming under increasing pressure as population growth and globalization increase the rate at with which the lumberjacks’ axes are falling – and that should concern everyone, especially businessmen and women here in the U.S.

To understand why, it is first important to get a sense of the sheer scale of deforestation taking place. In Malawi, for instance, population growth in this mostly rural, landlocked country has put immense pressure on local resources. Farming – which is the primary economic activity in Malawi – has expanded deeply into marginal, heavily-wooded forestland even as the wood burning for light and heat remains common.

As a result, Malawi’s forests are lost at a rate of nearly 3.9 percent each year, double the rate just seven years ago. This means that at the present rate of forestland loss, Malawi could become treeless in a decade. By 2024, Malawi’s once-verdant forests could be lost – replaced with scrub land subject to heavy erosion, nutrient leaching, and acute loss of biodiversity – a disaster for a country where 84 percent of the population is rural and dependent upon forest wood for fuel and livelihood.

Driven largely by poverty and a lack of alternative means of making a living, Malawians are about to repeat the mistake that Haiti made in the 20th century. There, population growth, dismal governance and bone-grinding poverty provided few economic alternatives to felling Haiti’s trees — which went from covering 60 percent of the country in the 1920s to just 2 percent today. The transformation of Haiti from a sylvan paradise to a dusty moonscape has by all accounts been a catastrophe. Hurting everything from flood control to agricultural productivity, deforestation is a leading cause of Haiti’s enduring poverty.

Malawi, however, is just one of many African countries going down this route to rapid forestland loss. The verdant Congo Basin – which encompasses an area the size of Western Europe – and West Africa are also losing trees at a slowing, though still precipitous rate. Though the rate of forest loss in Africa has slowed by some 50 percent compared to previous decades, it is still much higher than in other regions of the world. This means that by 2050, Africa’s once primeval forests will, for all intents and purposes, be lost; there will be no part of the African forest ecosystem that is not in one way or another heavily impacted by human logging or other forms of economic activity.

All this is bad news for Africans, whose denuded forests will translate into lower agricultural productivity, income loss from timber exports and the elimination of a major source of household fuel amongst a host of other ills. What does it mean, however, for Americans an ocean away — especially their bottom lines? It turns out, in a globalized world, economics and environments are intimately linked in many — potentially very costly ways.