Africa, Changing Lives: Making Research Real, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

AFRICA: Research and Tradition Could Save Environment

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Oct 10 2008 (IPS) - Africa risks losing up to 50 percent of its indigenous species over the next century due to global warming.

Flooding and droughts are already causing millions of the continent’s people to leave their homes, and land gets degraded as droughts force pastoralists to seek new grazing areas. The long-term ecological predictions are bleak, but scientists say this could be different if natural habitats are managed and protected.

Ways of mitigating potential damage to the environment were discussed recently at a conference of the Biota Africa project, held in Stellenbosch, in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. The Biodiversity Monitoring Transect Analysis in Africa (Biota) Project, sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, creates partnerships with scientists in Africa and elsewhere in order to make research results about biodiversity and sustainable development available to local land users and decision makers.

The research focuses on monitoring settlement patterns, and gathering data on rainfall, crops, fruits and plants. It creates projects in partnership with local communities to ensure the preservation of biodiversity, and to protect plants used in traditional medicines.

Speaking at the conference, Biota Africa coordinator Norbert Jürgens said there are many natural habitats which have survived in their original form in Africa and where ecosystems have been preserved. This is in contrast to Europe where large natural tracts of land have been destroyed. While this presented Africa with hope, he warned that the rate of extinction of species seemed to be increasing.

“Life is dependent on biodiversity, and I believe that the large-scale losses of biodiversity will have a larger impact on human lives than climate change. If we can manage something like pastures in Africa wisely, climate change will hit Africa less hard than predicted,” he said.

Although there are still huge tracts of original unspoilt land in Africa, the effect of population growth and intensive land use has been particularly severe in West Africa.

According to Eduard Linenmair, leader of the Biota West Africa project, the Ivory Coast has lost 70 percent of its forests over the last 17 years. And because of the disappearance of forests, there has been a drop in rainfall. This has affected farming activities. Ten years ago farmers in Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast could reap two harvests a year. Now they reap one.

Responding to a question why the rest of the world should care about what happens to Africa, Jürgens said: “We are all part of one world.”

“What happens in Africa has an impact on Europe. By using the Biota research findings, communities can make sound and informed decisions. Maybe it makes more sense to stop farming with sheep in semi-arid regions and rather focus on tourism if it makes more financial and ecological sense.”

By making use of research findings a balance could be reached between preservation and cultivation. An example of how preservation makes financial sense is the hoodia plant which has been used by the Bushmen of Southern Africa for generations. It was unknown in the West until scientists discovered its slimming potential. Now the plant is highly prized.

According to Jürgens ecological systems are being destroyed by people who are unaware of their importance in maintaining a delicate natural balance.

In the same way a lack of knowledge has led to alien vegetation replacing much of the indigenous flora in the Cape region of South Africa. This was caused when eucalyptus and acacia species were brought in from Australia a century ago in an effort to stabilise the coastal dunes. Besides taking over the indigenous flora, forest fires increased and the groundwater level sank dramatically due to the alien species’ deep roots.

The research of Biota was highly relevant to the fight against poverty in Africa, said Jürgens. “There is generally an awareness of environmental issues, which is partly due to the fact that droughts and flooding hit the people of the continent particularly hard.

“At Biota we have cultivated a cooperative culture in which all decisions are taken jointly, together with our partners. These are not only fellow scientists and politicians, but all stakeholders. We identify the fears and needs of the rural populations and assimilate them into the Biota programme.”

The Biota programme draws extensively on indigenous knowledge systems. For example, in West Africa, where the soil has been depleted of nutrients, a traditional form of land cultivation has been re-introduced to farming communities.

Termites are attracted to the soil by left-over agricultural plants or dung that farmers put into holes in the fields. The termites build tunnels under the field, transporting large amounts of fertile top soil from the surface to the deeper layers. Their excretions also fertilise the soil.

Research findings could however not be forced upon communities who did not understand the need to protect their environment, he said. And that was why Biota invested money and time to develop skills in the local communities. Especially important was the training of ‘para-ecologists’.

“We identify people from the communities who seem to have an interest in nature and we equip them with a number of skills,” said Jürgens. “The work of these people is extremely important in helping small scale farmers see how they can benefit by implementing research findings and sharing their indigenous knowledge.”

The para-ecologists organise workshops, facilitate interaction between scientists and members of the community and document environmental data which is relayed to the scientists.

A key message of the conference was that no matter how sound the scientific research, if the local population does not embrace the project, it will not have an effect.

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