Life begins as a seed. On board an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa after the COP27 meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, the crew screened a short film on Ethiopia’s Green Legacy Initiative- an ultra-ambitious plan to plant billions of trees across Ethiopia to combat the adverse impacts of deforestation and climate change.
When the project was launched in 2019, the Ethiopian government claimed that more than 350 million trees were planted in a single day by some 23 million volunteers. While this record still awaits verification, the government has drawn wide-spread praise for its ambitious plan to bring back the country’s forests, which according to the United Nations, plummeted from 35% of total land area in the 1900s to less than 5% in the 2000s. Ethiopia’s mostly rural population which rely on rain-fed farming for their livelihood, have been fighting a losing battle against droughts, desertification, and land degradation.
The narrator pointed out that Ethiopia wasn’t only signing agreements to protect the environment but was taking concrete steps on the ground to make good on those promises. The country, it appears, is determined to stop, and reverse deforestation. So far, Ethiopia claims to have planted a staggering 25 billion tree saplings since 2019 with a 70% survival rate. In the two years of the project’s life, the government estimates that the carbon impact equates to the removal of 65 million diesel cars from the roads for a year. Among the billions of seeds that were planted, half a billion were fruit trees which would provide livelihoods for hundreds of thousands and bolster food security.
The problems of deforestation and adverse climate change are not unique to Ethiopia or any country. They are global in nature with the varying and often devastating intensity of country-level manifestation. For example, in Sierra Leone, original forest cover plummeted from 60% fifty years ago, to about 4% now. Across rural communities, water sources are drying up and farmlands are turning to dust. Half of the country’s population is food insecure. Rainfall has become more erratic and deadly with flooding, landslides and death by flooding or landslide common occurrences in the rainy season. The country is among those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As was the case in Ethiopia before 2019, forests systems in Sierra Leone are under threat of extinction.
However, in 2019 while Ethiopia was planting 350 million trees in a single day, Sierra Leone was busy shipping off some 10 million slow-growing rosewood trees to Asia, destroying approximately 200 thousand acres of rainforest in the process. The government generated the grand sum of US $ 25.7 million from the destruction of the original forest that is 10 times the size of the capital, Freetown. That same year, in an address at the UN General Assembly during the Climate Action Summit, the country’s President noted that “Sierra Leone…is rated as the third most vulnerable [country] to the effects of climate change” and complained that the country is a “victim of actions we have not contributed to” and thus is unfairly and unacceptably paying the price both in terms of human lives and lack of development. He announced that the government was taking various actions to address climate change including planting over 100,000 trees as part of a five-year plan to plant two million trees. Even if this commitment was religiously undertaken, the government had effectively, in a single year, invalidated its five-year reforestation plan, five times over. The forest deficit will continue to grow as the government fully embraces timber exportation as a means of revenue generation.
At COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021, the Sierra Leone President joined 143 other leaders to commit to conserve, protect, sustainably manage, and restore forests and other ecosystems. In the same month that he signed this declaration to protect forests, the government announced a resumption of the timber trade which had been suspended because of the rains. So, while the president was signing up to protect and restore the country’s forests in Glasgow, on the ground, the government gave the green light to resume their plundering. For the Sierra Leone government, the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, it would seem, was not worth the paper it was written on. The failure or refusal to abide by the Glasgow Declaration is not surprising. In pursuit of timber revenue, the government has been violating its own environment and forest protection laws over the years. Making a few bucks now seems a much more desirable proposition than saving lives in the future.
At COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, government officials talked a good game on forest protection and sustainable management of natural resources- a review of the country’s forestry laws, among others, is on the cards. Back home however, the customary government press release to restart the season of pillaging of the nation’s fast dwindling forests was being issued. Somehow the timing of COP always shows the hollowness of the government’s commitment to protect the country’s forests in sharp relief.
So, given that both Ethiopia and Sierra Leone have suffered adversely from severe forest loss, what lessons can the latter learn from the former’s sterling actions to bring back its forests? Perhaps the most significant lesson is that commitments on paper should be matched by equivalent action on the ground. Sierra Leone has enacted laws and signed up to international agreements and declarations to protect its forests and sustainably manage vulnerable ecosystems. Yet, governments past and present repeatedly renege on these commitments for a few dollars. The truth is that revenue derived from destroying forests is never equal to the value of the forest that is lost. Additionally, a person’s word should be their bond. By persistently flouting written commitments, the government risks losing credibility in the eyes of its citizens and among the club of nations.
A further vital lesson is responsiveness to the lived realities of the population. Ethiopia’s majority rural citizenry faced an existential threat- farming was being extinguished by droughts and land degradation. The government responded with a massive plan to regenerate forests. Across rural communities in Sierra Leone, inconsistent rainfall, drought, and dwindling soil fertility have deepened poverty, food insecurity and left many without clean, safe water. While local communities and their chiefs are enforcing bye-laws that prevent logging and charcoal burning, the government merrily carries on with the timber export trade and the decimation of the last remaining forests.
Life indeed begins as a seed. The seed that is sown now will determine the quality of life that the citizens of Sierra Leone will have in the future. There is a lot at stake. The government needs to start sowing the right seeds now by stopping the timber export trade and embarking on aggressive reforestation or risk a perilous future for a nation that has been lurching from one crisis to another.
Sonkita Conteh is Director, Namati, Sierra Leone