Annihilation by deforestation; how the pursuit of short term “gain” will be the death of a country

By Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati Sierra Leone 

2019 was a terrible year for Sierra Leone’s forests. According to the 2020 annual pubic finance audit report, more than 10 million slow-growing, rosewood trees were shipped out of the country.  Approximately two hundred thousand acres of forest cover was destroyed in the process. These irreplaceable resources, the report showed, were exchanged for a meagre US $25 million in revenue for the government- less than US $2.50 per tree. 

Had it not been for the Covid-19 epidemic, the rate of plunder in 2020 would have equalled or surpassed this magnitude. How the current government continues to see the destruction of the nation’s last remaining ancient forests as a source of revenue continues to beggar belief. 

Successive governments have pursued an “exploit to extinction” policy ostensibly to break the population out of poverty. In reality, such actions over time have exacerbated penury and misery across the population. Fish stocks have been depleted, coastlines shaved of sand and forests set to become grasslands. In August 2017 a deadly landslide on the hills overlooking the capital city killed over a thousand people and rendered over three thousand homeless, in a matter of minutes. It followed years of unrestrained destruction of tree cover on the hills. This tragedy seems to have been quickly forgotten as the plunder of other areas of the peninsular forest continues unabated and with the connivance of public officials. Governments past and present have been firing on all cylinders in this deadly race to the abyss. 

China, the destination of choice for many of the plundered rosewood from sub-Saharan Africa has been jealously guarding and nurturing its own forests, while merrily demolishing the ecosystems of its African “friends”. Over a period of 20 years, the Chinese government spent US $ 47 billion protecting its natural forests. In 2018, the government deployed 60,000 soldiers to help grow 6 million hectares of new forests.  The country currently boasts the fifth largest forest area in the world and has set an ambitious target to add 4.5 billion cubic metres of forest by 2030. These domestic actions by China seem to have been lost on African governments who continue to submit their rapidly dwindling forest resources to Chinese exploitation.   

The Sierra Leone government continues to peddle a narrative of a country basking in the abundance of multifarious natural resources newly opened for exploration. This may have been true some 100 years ago, but the state-of-affairs now presents a much more sobering picture- that of a country on the brink of an exploitation apocalypse. 

Most of the north has become drier with many communities forced to drink dirty water. Farming patterns no longer hold constant as rainfall has become erratic and violent. The World Food Programme has stated that these unreliable precipitation patterns, along with recurrent climactic shocks are what has led the food insecure population in the country to increase from 34% in 2019 to almost 48% in 2020. 

When trees are felled other animals and plants including micro-organisms that rely on them eventually die, thus cascading the effect of the loss. The quality and stability of the soil becomes compromised ensuring that crops will not thrive. Forest loss affects rainfall patterns and the supply of clean water. The country’s leadership continues to ignore the hard facts, determined to extinguish the less than 5% of original forest cover remaining, in the name of generating revenue. This mercenary attitude to nature’s gifts will be the death of our nation.   

The current lull in the destruction of forest resources, resulting from the pandemic, affords the nation an opportunity to introspect, take stock and course correct. Is the US $ 25 million revenue price tag a fair exchange for the loss of our prized ecosystem?  

Action must be taken to prevent the current situation from degenerating into an unmanageable crisis. Government should immediately end the practice of timber exportation. The losses now and in the future far outweigh any revenue that is being generated. We need to save what is left of our forests and work on restoring them. Communities where these forests sit should be empowered to play a role in their protection and renewal. Fifty years ago, Sierra Leone had more than 60% of its original forest cover intact. Today, only a fraction of that remains. At the current scale of plunder, getting to zero will be achieved in a few short years.     

Political leaders perhaps have already formulated their personal escape plans for when the country hits rock bottom. The rest of the population is not so privileged. Their hope lies in acting now and stopping a trade that has not and will never be profitable for the nation. Government should put the country’s interest above anything else.