In 1991, the Hunger Project, a global non-profit strategic organisation committed to the sustainable end of world hunger, awarded the Africa Leadership Prize for Sustainable end of Hunger jointly to two women: Prof. Wangari Maathai of Kenya and the late Mrs. Maryam Babangida of Nigeria.
While the late Maryam received her award on account of her efforts to better the lot of Nigerian women through her pet project, Better Life for Rural Women, Maathai’s was due to her efforts in empowering rural women in Kenya through her non-profit organisation, the Green Belt Movement (GBM). Maathai also received the Goldman Award in 1991 and would go on to receive several more including the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
The GBM was set up in response to the needs of rural Kenyan women who complained that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure and they increasingly had to walk longer distances to get firewood and wood for fencing.
The GBM encouraged and promoted the planting of trees by paying stipends to the rural women for planting and nurturing seedlings. Through this initiative, GBM planted over 51 million trees in Kenya since it was founded in 1977 and has continued to reforest vast areas of the country, restore biodiversity and improve the livelihoods of citizens. The problems that the rural Kenyan women faced were borne out of the unsustainable use of natural resources, particularly trees and vegetation. This continues to be a global problem today because of the pressures of a rapidly increasing population which is unmatched by a planned, deliberate and systematic regime of balancing usage with regeneration.
The change in Nigeria’s climate and weather patterns compared to what obtained as recently as the 1980s is due mainly to the drastic depletion of trees and vegetation in Nigeria and globally. Consequently, we now experience increased flooding, loss of freshwater due to receding rivers, poorer soils and irregular farming cycles, among myriad problems.
The World Council for Economic Development (WECD) defines sustainable development as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This means that for industrial development to be sustainable, apart from addressing important issues at the macro level such as economic efficiency (innovation, prosperity, productivity) and social equity (poverty, community, health, human rights), it must factor in environmental accountability (land use, biodiversity, fresh water and climate change).
Plant conservation, a broad group of activities that aim to prevent plants from becoming extinct, is a critical part of environmental accountability and conservation. It is ultimately centered on the conservation of trees, which is integrative to the process. The value placed on this initiative accounts for the attention it has received from NGOs and corporate bodies who are consistently sustaining efforts in promoting environmental protection and sustainability through tree planting.
The Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), a foremost NGO dedicated to nature conservation and sustainable development and with conservation projects across at least 11 states in Nigeria, recently began involving school pupils in its tree planting campaign. The purpose is to raise a new generation of future leaders who will understand the importance of conservation and preservation of biodiversity. Some of NCF’s partners/sponsors include Chevron Nigeria, Nigeria Bottling Company and First Bank of Nigeria.
Guinness Nigeria, Nigerian Breweries and Skin Beauty Cosmetics Ltd have at different times sponsored the tree planting campaign of Lagos State. British American Tobacco Nigeria, apart from ensuring that the outgrowers do not exploit child labour, also train their farmers to adopt sustainable farming techniques that preserve environmental biodiversity.
Trees play a pivotal role in the preservation of the biodiversity of any environment or location. Their roots go deep into the soil, loosen it up for more absorption of rainwater and less run off. The increased absorption raises the water table level and consequently makes water available to plants for much longer while the top soil also retains its fertility as erosion is forestalled.
Trees also support the growth of underbrush or bushes, which provide further cover for the top soil by providing protection from loss of water through evaporation. The presence of vegetation also improves water retention as their presence reduces the drying effects of winds that would otherwise occur on bare unprotected land.
Trees and other vegetation clean up the atmosphere when they absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), through photosynthesis and release oxygen as a byproduct.
CO2, a natural constituent of air, causes increased global temperatures when excessive amounts in the atmosphere trap heat. Trees are needed now more than ever before to counter the polluting effects of industrial expansion, which ironically is a major cause of deforestation.
Forests and vegetation are the natural habitats of most animal species. The depletion of vegetation has pushed many species into extinction while scores remain on the endangered list. This situation continues to alter our ecosystems drastically, reducing the efficacy of some natural cycles/checks and even posing health threats to humans.
On the whole, our dear planet has been suffering environmental degradation and deforestation for several decades. National Geographic estimates that swaths of forests, the size of half of England, are lost globally every year. The situation is particularly dire in Africa and the developing world where the bulk of deforestation occurs.
Other factors that combine to exacerbate the situation include rapid growth in rural populations who also depend on trees for firewood. A near absence of urban and environmental planning has also resulted in an environment that is unprotected from deforestation due to over-cultivation, overgrazing, over-harvesting of trees, as well as the expansion of human settlements. There is also the big problem of illegal harvesting of trees for export.
There will always be legitimate demand for trees for their varied uses by man. The challenge ideally is to ensure the concomitant regeneration of the trees and forest resource as they are being harvested. However, Nigeria’s challenge includes the urgent reforestation of the vast areas of forests that have been lost to unsustainable practices, strengthening capacity and creating institutions that will ensure proper regulation and regeneration of our forest resource.
The biggest task perhaps is to make governments at all levels understand the relevance of plant conservation to sustainable economic development, the eradication of poverty and the empowerment of people. The scope of reforestation and regeneration that will correct our current deficit requires a holistic national master plan that must be headlined by the federal and state governments in Nigeria as well as multinationals and NGOs.