Older, Wiser but Ghana Is Less Green at 50
AMASAMAN, Ghana -- Small, scraggy and forlorn, the handful of seedlings Ghanaian school-owner Thomas Darkwah has planted in his schoolyard does not look like much.
But the hope is that planting these and five million other free government seedlings this year will help reforest Ghana, a poor West African country which has lost nearly three-quarters of its trees since British colonial times.
The first country in sub-Saharan Africa to win independence, Ghana turns 50 this month. While it may be older and wiser, it is also decidedly less green.
Its capital Accra sprawls indiscriminately. Around Darkwah's school in Amasaman district, about 15 miles (24 km) from the city, a seemingly endless stream of low-rise buildings has been thrown up to meet the demands of the fast-growing population.
"Years back, the whole of this area was covered in trees," said Darkwah, showing an expanse characterised by scrub and dotted with new buildings.
Originally forests covered 36 percent of Ghana's territory but by 2000 this had shrunk to just 10 percent, according to a 2004 report by the country's Environmental Protection Agency.
"Over the years, Ghana has lost a very significant part of our forests. Looking at what we had then and what we have now, it is a huge loss," said Belinda Laryea at Greening Ghana, a government initiative to plant trees for the Golden Jubilee.
Most of Ghana's trees have been logged and exported, with timber one of the country's biggest export earners after cocoa and gold, said Laryea.
Some were cut to make way for cocoa plantations, others for use as firewood or charcoal for cooking, an essential commodity for those with no access to electricity or too poor to buy gas.
HUGE ENVIRONMENTAL COST
The environmental cost has been huge, activists say. The loss of the forests harms Ghana's ability to absorb damaging greenhouse gases while some tree and wildlife species have been lost as well, activists say.
Drier weather this year has also led to power cuts, reducing water levels and hydroelectric power generation. A harsher, drier Harmattan wind -- which blows in each year from the Sahara -- has raised concern about this season's cocoa crop.
Patches of pristine forest remain dotted across the country, often protecting shrines, ancestral forests or burial grounds, maintained through fear and reverence for the gods and spirits.
"Often they are the only remnants of forests amidst severely degraded forestlands and farmlands," said Ghana Wildlife Society's Gerard Boakye.
Driven by competition between milling firms and corruption, illegal logging undermines Ghana's efforts to manage its forest resources, activists said.
Alhassan Attah of Ghana's Forestry Commission says illegal logging does occur, breaching the annual quota of around 1.5 million cubic metres, but it is hard to quantify.
"If you include illegal logging, industry is logging at five times the sustainable level," said Nana Darko Cobbina, forestry officer at Friends of the Earth.
Cobbina says that while the government plants around 10,000 hectares a year under a scheme launched in 2001, it is limited to only a few species of trees.
"The management of these seedlings is very poor. We cannot guarantee if in three or four years time they will still be there," he said.
Both industry and environmentalists share a common interest in ensuring Ghana remains green, said Greening Ghana's Laryea.
"We are not saying people shouldn't cut trees at all, we are saying the rate at which we plant trees should exceed the rate at which we chop them," she said.
At Darkwah's school, some of the seedlings have already died, withering in the dry season. The remainder need to be nurtured to maturity, if not by him then by future generations.
"Sooner or later, if we don't take these steps, there will be no trees," said Darkwah.