Protecting African Forests: Wangari Maathai's Legacy

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon.

Wangari Maathai, a prominent Kenyan environmental and political activist and 2004 Nobel prize winner passed away on September 25, 2011. She was the first African woman to be awarded the prize and is recognized worldwide as the leading figure in the fight to protect the environment through sustainable actions on African continent. She was also part of the jury at the World Future Council Award this past week.

Wangari Maathai. Image under CC License from Wikipedia.

Wangari Maathai. Image under CC License from Wikipedia.

The council has selected Rwanda and Gambia as the winners of an award for best forest policies in 2011. The awards also highlighted the US Lacey Act amendment of 2008 which prohibits all trade in wood and plant products that are knowingly illegally sourced. The Lacey Act has already had a major impact in curbing down the illegal logging of rosewood from Madagascar's rainforests.

Other African nations have also done remarkably well in protecting their environment in the face of increasing threats from climate change.


Rwanda was awarded the prize for their continued effort in reversal in the trend of declining forest cover. The philosophy behind the prioritizing of reforestation is explained as follows [fr] on

Les experts disent que le transfert de propriété des terres et des ressources aux communautés locales est un moyen de sortir de la tragédie des biens communs, [..]  Le gouvernement est actuellement en train de mettre en oeuvre une stratégie de développement économique et de réduction de la pauvreté qui considère l’inversion de la déforestation comme un facteur crucial dans la réduction de la pauvreté, et a fixé l’objectif d’augmenter la couverture forestière du pays de 30 pour cent d’ici à 2020. La couverture forestière a déjà augmenté de 37 pour cent depuis 1990.

Experts argue that the transfer of land properties and resources to local communities is an important channel to exit the tragedy of commons […] the government is currently putting in place a strategy for economic development and poverty reduction that regards reforestation as crucial factor in poverty reduction and sets as a goal to increase the forest area of the country by 30% from now to 2020. The forest cover has already increased by 37% since 1990.


Tree in Gambia by Guillaume Colin on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Tree in Gambia by Guillaume Colin on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The Gambia’s Community Forest Policy is the other African nation recipient of the first Silver award. Eduardo Rojas Briales, assistant director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, explains:

The success of the Gambia's Community Forest Policy proves that even in the world's poorest countries, with the right policies and adequate legislation in place rural populations can benefit economically and significantly improve their food security. In Gambia the innovative policy included forest tenure transition from state ownership to management by local communities, which enabled them to reduce illegal logging and benefit from using the forest products.[..] Gambia has managed to buck a strong deforestation trend in Africa with over 350 villages managing twelve percent of the country’s forests, with a net increase in forest cover of 8.5 percent over the last two decades.


The institutional measures with the most successful impact with protecting the endangered rain forest of Madagascar can be credited to the US Lacey Act amendment of 2008 which prohibits all trade in wood and plant products that are knowingly illegally sourced.

Illegal logging of Madagascar rosewood has plagued conservation effort for several years. This trafficking has increased at an alarming rate since the political crisis of 2009, as explained previously on in these interviews and in this report.

Why is the Lacey Act effective in having an impact across borders ? Tewolde Berhan Egziabher, director general of Environmental Protection Authority in Ethiopia explains:

The strength of the Act lies in its ability to target and place responsibility on every stage of the timber supply chain. It has forced importers to take responsibility for their wood products and has already produced positive results in increasing due diligence assessments and demand for certified wood products.

This Act  has also been critical in protecting the endangered species of lemurs in the the Malagasy rain forest, most notably the silky Sifaka:


Trouble in Lemur Land from Erik R Patel on Vimeo.

The Lacey Act has also indirectly created a small diplomatic incident between France and the United States, when the First Lady Michelle Obama gifted a Gibson guitar to the model/singer and France's first lady Carla Bruni [fr]. Malagasy blogger Avylavitra explains the incident [mg]:

Fa ny tena anton-dresaka eto dia ny fanomezana nomen’ny vadin’ny filoha Amerikana, Michelle Obama ho an’i Carla Bruni, vadin’ny filoha frantsay Sarkozy, nandritra ny vovonan’ny OTAN tany Strasbourg tamin’ny taona 2009. Gitara Gibson no natolony tamin’izay fotoana izay, vita avy amin’ny hazo Andramena, hazo sarobidy voarara ny famoahana azy avy aty Madagasikara,

What really got people talking was the fact that the gift that American first lady Michelle Obama gave Sarkozy's wife Carla Bruni at the NATO meeting in Strasbourg, France in 2009. The Gibson guitar is made of rosewood, a type of precious wood that is protected from commercial endeavors in Madagascar.


Route of the Great Green Wall

Protecting forests also means fighting back the desertification across the African continent due to climate change. The Green Great Wall (GGW) initiative is a transcontinental project, under the umbrella of Community of the Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) and the African Union that strives to be a multi-species vegetal belt 15 km wide that will link Dakar and Djibouti and stretch over a distance of about 7000 km.

The Sécheresse/Désertification blog explains in further detail the implications of project [fr]:

Entre 2006 et 2007, quatre mille hectares soit environ sept kilomètres d’arbres ont déjà été plantés sur le tracé sénégalais de la Grande Muraille Verte. en 2008, l’Etat plantera des arbres sur une superficie de deux mille hectares dans la région de Louga. Ces végétaux sélectionés et adaptés au territoire, seront boisés en bloc contrairement aux plantations déjà existantes qui sont cultivées de façon discontinue [..] La muraille traversera le Sénégal, la Mauritanie, le Mali, le Burkina Faso, le Niger, le Nigeria, le Soudan, l’Erythrée et finira à Djibouti [..] Le professeur Dia a annoncé que la désertification a fait perdre au Sénégal près de deux millions d’hectares de terres arables.

In 2006-07, 4000 hectares, i.e 7 kilometers of trees were planted on the Senegalese trace of the Great Green Wall. In 2008, the State will also plant 2,000 hectares in the Louga region. The selected plants are adapted to the territory and will be grown in block as opposed to the existing parsimonious vegetation [..] The Wall will cross Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea and will end in Djibouti [..] Professor Dia states that desertification has already caused the loss of 2 millions hectares of arable lands in Senegal

The legacy of Wangari Maathai will live on with all the measures taken by each African nation. Her message to the world was that we collectively need to make sure that the challenge of desertification is being met heads on and to realize that local communities must be an integral part of this challenge.

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon.

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