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Forest for the Future

At a conference hosted by Form Ghana and Nyenrode Business University, Kofi Annan delivered a keynote speech on the needs and challenges for forests in Africa.


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your warm welcome. I am delighted to be with you today.

Let me also thank Form Ghana and Nyenrode Business University for inviting me to join you for this important event.

As a young boy, growing up in Kumasi, I used to travel with my parents to Accra or Cape Coast. During those long journeys, forests were all around us; providing clean air and water, and local communities with food, shelter and livelihoods.

Many years later, when I took my wife, who is Swedish, to Ghana, I was telling her about all those forests. We were all excited; but when we arrived, my wife asked me: “Where are all the forests?”

It was a sobering moment. I was speechless; most of the forests were indeed gone.

Today, only about one fifth of Ghana’s original forest cover remains intact. And each day more forests are cleared, driven by multiple activities, from agriculture to infrastructure development, to the growing demand for wood and forest products, often made worse by illegal logging.

And the global picture is not any different.

From the Amazon to Indonesia, forests that have taken centuries to grow are destroyed in only a few months to serve the international demand for palm oil, soybeans or timber.

Some of the world’s most precious ecosystems, such as the Virunga National Park in the Congo Basin, are threatened by oil, gas and mineral exploration and exploitation.

Despite all the invaluable ecological, economic and social benefits, we are destroying the very forests and ecosystems vital for sustainable living on our planet.

Close to 130 million hectares of forest – an area almost equivalent in size to South Africa – have been lost since 1990.

Ladies and Gentlemen, today, I will highlight three critical areas, where I believe action is needed urgently and where Africa can play a leading role in support of our global efforts:

  • Forest protection and conservation;
  • Forest restoration and reforestation; and
  • The transformation of energy systems.

First, the urgency to protect and conserve existing forests, and to restore degraded and deforested land, is now felt by many. During COP 21 in Paris, an ambitious initiative, the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, was launched to restore 100 million hectares of forest across Africa by 2030.

This initiative builds on the new Sustainable Development Agenda, particularly SDG 15, and supports the New York Declaration on Forests, which aims to end natural forest loss globally by 2030, and restore 350 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded lands by the same time.

These are crucial steps in the right direction. But we must remember that the only promises which count are those which are kept.

All governments need to put in place ambitious forest policies and regulations to protect the traditional forest cover and the biodiversity that it shelters. This must include strengthening legal frameworks for protecting forests, adopting effective measures to tackle illegal logging, and introducing economic incentives for forest conservation.

Second, forest protection has to go hand-in-hand with forest restoration and reforestation. Africa has the largest restoration opportunity of any continent in the world – an area nearly the size of Australia.

Many African communities are already reaping the benefits of restoration. Farmers in the Ethiopian region of Tigray have restored more than one million hectares of degraded land through agroforestry and climate-smart agriculture. By doing so, they have expanded farming long into the dry season, improving soils and water supplies, and increasing food and nutrition security.

It is for such reasons that my Foundation keeps emphasizing the crucial role that climate-smart solutions can play in ending hunger. If done properly, commercial forest plantations have a huge potential to restore degraded land and reduce pressure on natural forests.

But let me stress that the new must not lead to the destruction or neglect of the old. Several companies in Africa, including Form Ghana, have set-up sustainable forestry projects based on a long-term approach and multi-stakeholder benefit. They understand, what all farmers know, that if you take something from the earth today, you need to put something back in return; because if you don’t do so, the cycle cannot continue.

They are operating according to high standards for sustainable forest management, serving the needs of the local communities and restoring vital environmental services.

These successes need to be replicated and scaled-up. African governments must create conducive environments to promote domestic and international investment in sustainable reforestation initiatives.

I encourage companies to build innovative partnerships with governments, civil society, and multilateral institutions to develop and apply sustainability criteria and increase the areas of certified forest plantations. Businesses must adopt zero-deforestation policies, respect human rights and land rights, and commit to third party verification of their operations. Consumers can support responsible business practices by committing themselves to buying recycled or certified wood products. And the global community must get behind those efforts; the benefits – as we all know – go far beyond Africa.

Forest restoration and reforestation in Africa can contribute to the global effort to tackle climate change and accelerate progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Research shows that forest restoration of 350 million hectares could generate $170 billion per year in net benefits from watershed protection, improved crop yields and forest products.

Third, Africa’s leadership on reforestation also has to go hand-in-hand with a massive transformation of its energy systems. Two out of three Africans – over 600 million people – have no access to electricity. Cut off from the grid, rural populations across the continent often have no other choice than chopping trees to make charcoal for cooking. This is not just driving deforestation and climate change, but also putting people’s health at risk. An estimated 600,000 Africans die each year as result of household air pollution, half of them children under the age of five.  It is imperative that African countries shift towards a low-carbon energy future, which provides all Africans with clean and accessible energy.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I recognize that this is an ambitious agenda. There are many challenges to overcome, but progress is possible. What is required is sustained and bold leadership from every sector, and the determination to move from commitment to action and results on the ground.

To succeed I believe that we shall need to move quickly on three fronts.

First, we must put an end to deforestation and protect the health of our remaining forests.

Second, we should recognize the huge potential of new forests and invest in sustainable reforestation of degraded lands.

Third, we must put Africa on a pathway towards a low-carbon energy future to end the clearing of forests for energy purposes.

My friend and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate the late Wangari Maathai once said: “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope”. Her efforts to counter deforestation were embedded in a larger vision for sustainable development and international solidarity.

From my own experience, I have arrived at the conviction that healthy societies are based on three pillars: peace and security; sustainable development; and the rule of law and respect for human rights.

There can be no peace and security without development. And there can be no long-term development without peace and security. And no society can long prosper without respect for the rule of law and fundamental human rights.

By working together – starting here in Africa – we can build a more sustainable future for all founded on these pillars of progress.

Thank you.