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Funding nature—a challenge we have to meet.

By June 15, 2021June 17th, 2021Editorial

Caption: Bonobo mother and child, Democratic Republic of Congo. © Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock.

Since 1991, June 16 has been celebrated as The Day of the African Child. In South Africa, it is more specifically remembered as Youth Day, which marks one of the many dark events of the country’s apartheid years. On this day in 1976, some 20,000 people, mostly students, took to the streets of Soweto to protest against the government’s insistence on Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in the township’s high schools that served black African children. The police responded to the Soweto uprising with brutality, using tear gas and then live ammunition. At least 176 young people died, and thousands more were injured, followed by protests and their repression throughout the land.

The circumstances today are very different, but the focus on education and opportunity remain. As Hannah J. Dawson points out, the biggest challenge of the youth is finding a job, and it is an even greater one now in the wake of COVID-19. “South Africa,” she writes, “has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. A whopping 63% of its young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years are jobless.” But they are not inactive as is often portrayed. Dawson’s study reveals that many unemployed young people are engaged in a variety of economic activities. “Many of these are not necessarily recorded as a form of self-employment or informal employment, but they consume a large part of young people’s lives.”

While this is encouraging, the need for massive investment into skills acquisition and employment opportunities is obvious. Besides, the demand is just growing—and not just in respect to those born in South Africa. For all its current economic woes, the country is seen as the promised land for so many Africans to the north. In mid-2020, some 2,9 million migrants resided in South Africa, the most industrialized economy in the region. All this shows how desperate the situation is throughout Africa.

Africa’s image in the world is swamped by negativity. The pervading view seen through the camera lenses of the major global networks is of a dangerous place of ongoing war, corruption, poverty, pestilence, and cruel despotic rule. One cannot deny the many ills that beset Africa, but in airing and debating what is wrong with the continent, the world should never lose sight of what is good and right. For there is another Africa where there is much to celebrate; an Africa that is the fountainhead of all humankind; a continent filled with fascinating age-old cultures, extraordinary and warm, friendly people, icons including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Wangari Maathai, who are revered the world over, superb and creative intellects, and, above all, a repository of the most magnificent wilderness in the world.

The word wilderness is, of course, a relative term as few, if any, of the world’s most remote wild areas are untouched in some way or another by the hand of the human species. Nevertheless, some places are wilder than others—places where our footprint is lighter, and which retain sufficient integrity to be regarded as functioning ecosystems. Africa has its fair share of them.

This may seem contradictory in sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of the land that could sustain plants and wildlife in their natural habitats has been lost due to the growth of cities, towns and villages, agriculture, monoculture tree plantations, logging, industry, and mining. Nonetheless, I believe it would be true to say that even the poorest of Africa’s nations have a richness in life forms that far outstrips that of the majority if not all, the wealthy developed countries of the world.

Africa’s endowment of rich, diverse forms of animal and plant life is astonishing. No other continent can match it. Africa’s great savannas and forests support more large mammal species than the rest of the world combined. Where else could you see so many of the world’s big carnivores—lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, and wild dog? Three of the planet’s four great apes are found here, as are the savanna and forest elephants, the heaviest of all land creatures, and the giraffe, the tallest. And what of the hippo, black and white rhinos, the buffalo, several zebra species, an abundance of antelope, and more than 20 percent of all known bird species? Then there are the reptiles, amphibians, insects, spiders, and other invertebrates so numerous that many remain unknown to science. The list seems endless.

The flora, too, is spectacular, from the massive trees that anchor the soils of the Congo Basin’s tropical forests to the tiniest stone-like lithops found in the Namib Desert. Africa is also home to eight of the world’s 36 designated biodiversity hotspots. One of these is the Cape Floristic Kingdom, which has the world’s highest concentration of vascular plants. More than 6,000 of them are endemic. The Table Mountain National Park falls within this epicenter of plant biodiversity, and this area of some 85 square miles alone has more plant species than the state of Maine, more than 400 times larger. Adjacent to the Cape Floristic Region is another botanical hotspot, the Succulent Karoo. It and the Horn of Africa jutting out into the northern Indian Ocean is the world’s only two entirely arid ecosystems to have hotspot status.

As a privileged citizen of the world, it is easy to look out over the plains of Africa, to gaze up at snow-capped peaks or shifting dunes of red desert sand, and to believe that these places should not have to justify themselves. Surely they ought to persist in their own way, only changing at a pace dictated by Nature? And what of watching a leopard half-hidden in a tree, a hippo grunting in a river, or a beetle laboring at its ball of dung? Isn’t it reasonable to believe that these creatures and organisms have a rightful place and our respect and undertaking to uphold that right?

There is nothing wrong with believing that Africa’s natural world should persist for its own sake and our spiritual needs. Still, it would be naïve in the extreme to think that this could be so without taking due note of the factors that mitigate against it.

More than 1.2 billion people live in Africa, double what it was a mere three decades ago. The continent has the highest population growth rate in the world, and although it is slowing, it is projected to remain above two percent for the next twenty years. This means that Africa could top four billion people by the end of the century, notwithstanding its appalling record of famine, disease, and warfare. Enclaves may enjoy living standards approaching those of citizens of the developed world, but they are very small indeed. For the most part, Africa is poverty wracked with massive and mounting debt and failing economies. Under the shadow of a COVID-stressed world, African countries are experiencing an unprecedented economic downturn with major adverse impacts on development.

Poverty and deprivation are clearly linked to environmental well-being. And so are greed, overconsumption, and corruption. Unless these are addressed equitably, there can be little hope for the wilderness and other conservation areas of our planet. The economic pressure on them will just be too great to withstand. This would be the ultimate tragedy for Africa, as the abundance of natural wonders is the core asset, our blue-chip investment that could sustain a better life for all—but only if just political systems, security, and stability can be achieved.

The value of biodiversity is huge: $44 trillion of economic value generated—over half the world’s total GDP—is dependent on Nature and its services. In addition, the richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries—no less than 40 percent of the drugs behind the pharmacist’s counter in the Western world are derived from plants that people have used for centuries. Furthermore, economic development, including nature-based tourism and adaptive responses to the challenges of climate change, are all dependent on functioning ecosystems.

Although there have been great strides in reducing global destitution, there are still some 700 million people living in poverty worldwide, and it is likely that during 2020, COVID-19 will have forced another 88–115 million into that state. It is a cruel irony that in Africa, as elsewhere in the developing world, poor people have few alternatives other than to consume at an unsustainable rate the very biodiversity that is their only capital. The examples are alarming. Hunting for food, shelter, clothing, and trade has been a part of human culture from the beginning of time, but human numbers were such that their reliance on Nature must have been sustainable, for the most part.

In recent times, however, an exponentially expanding population has placed immense pressure on the landscape and the creatures and plants living in them. Now, anything that can be eaten or sold is relentlessly pursued at a previously unimaginable rate, be it for the skin, body parts for the traditional medicine industry, or bushmeat to be traded as a delicacy for wealthy city dwellers. Not only is the risk of zoonotic disease transmission a serious risk, but the sheer impact on species survival is also huge. In sub-Saharan Africa, 4.5-4.9 million tones of bushmeat are harvested yearly from 500 different species, of which 91 are threatened. If not slowed, let alone stopped, Africa’s tropical forests will soon be as barren and as still as the landscape foretold in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The unsustainable bushmeat trade is largely facilitated by the exploitation and over-harvesting of Africa’s tropical forests. The logging trade, both legal and illegal, is a serious conservation issue in itself. Moreover, it opens routes into previously inaccessible regions that the hunters are quick to follow. Added to forest loss is a litany of conservation crises—events such as the widespread human encroachment of protected areas throughout Africa, conflicts between wildlife and farmers, habitat loss in other ecosystems, and invasion by alien plant species.

As much as the above threats need to be curtailed and, where possible, reversed, biological resources will be used to provide income for people with few, if any, alternative opportunities. But they must be managed for the long term and within the context of a fair deal for the communities and nations of Africa. As stressed earlier, biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are the continent’s most precious assets that, if properly nurtured, can form part of the miracle of a resurgent Africa. This, of course, needs money—lots of it.

In 2012, an article in Science magazine suggested that a sum of US$78 million would need to be spent every year up to 2020 to meet international targets for safeguarding biodiversity. Not only was this target nowhere near met by 2020, but the goalposts had been significantly shifted as well. According to Protected Planet, there are 8,579 protected areas in Africa, representing 14.1 percent of the land area and 12.35 percent of the marine environment. But sights have now been set on 30 percent for both land and marine environments by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050! For Africa, 30 percent of the land area is almost the size of the U.S.A., while for 50 percent, you would need to add the countries of India and Argentina!

These are admirable goals, but the question that has to be asked is where (quite literally) on Earth the money will come from? The sums needed are staggering. UNEP reports that a total investment in Nature of US$8.1 trillion is required between now and 2050—while annual investment should reach US$536 billion annually by 2050—to successfully tackle the interlinked climate, biodiversity, and land degradation crises. Furthermore, yearly investments in nature-based solutions will have to triple by 2030 and increase four-fold by 2050 into nature-based solutions of US$133 billion (using 2020 as a base).

In the case of Africa, you don’t have to be an accountant to work out that the finances of most conservation areas are already in a parlous state. If we were to save 50% of Africa and the world, it would be a magnificent achievement. But the national parks and reserves wouldn’t be worth the paper that the laws bringing it into existence are written on without the money to run them properly.

Even in the most optimistic scenarios, Africa’s vital human needs such as education, food security, housing, and medical care will need more money than will be available. And COVID-19 has only worsened the situation. What chance then does conservation have of securing its share of strained national exchequers?

And, despite the extraordinary, laudable, ongoing efforts of so many conservation agencies, making up the shortfall isn’t going to happen via traditional donor funding. Innovative thinking and new private-sector partnerships are part of what is required. There have to be paradigm shifts in investment thinking that understand the underlying asset value of Africa’s landscapes and wildlife and investors with deep and patient pockets who are in it for the long haul. New thinking needs to lead African conservation away from notions of charity and towards meaningful investment.

It can be done, but only if African governments buy into the vision. Critically, they will have to root out business and political corruption that go hand in hand with systems of patronage that make poor people even poorer and even more dependent on stripping the natural assets that could be their salvation. A tall order indeed.

On a positive note, the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People that was launched last year and now includes 50 countries, believes that the ambitions can be realized and will help drive economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The coalition reckons the benefits of protecting 30 percent of the planet are estimated to outweigh the costs by a ratio of at least five to one. I would think that would be a good enough long-term return to convince even the most conservative bean counters.