Forest Degradation/Deforestation in Ghana


Deforestation is a global menace which has received much public attention in most countries in recent years. The international community, governments at national level, NGOs, and other such organizations are raising awareness about the dangerous consequences of forest loss to the environment and hence humanity. The FAO 2010 report revealed an alarming rate of deforestation with a global loss of around 13 million hectares of forest each year in the last decade (2000 to 2010). This deforested area is more than half the total area of Ghana. The report indicated that Africa has the second highest rate of deforestation worldwide (with 3.4 million hectares of forest loss annually).The situation is not any different in Ghana where forest has been under pressure from human activities over the last century.

This article seeks to highlight the state of Ghana’s forest resource, considering trends over the past 100 years. The article will also briefly discuss the causes of deforestation and present some suggested solutions.

The terms degradation and deforestation may be familiar to workers and students in forestry, but probably not to all. Deforestation is defined as the conversion of forest to non forest land uses. This means that if a land previously occupied by forest is cleared for agriculture or a building project, then deforestation would have occurred. Degradation however refers to any activity that affects the quality of the forest. For example, bush fires may cause degradation but may not necessarily result in deforestation. By FAO definitions, an area is considered to be forest if it covers an area greater than 0.5 hectares, and has 10% or more tree crown cover. In turn, trees can be defined as having a single stem and the potential to reach a minimum height of 2-5 metres at maturity. An alternative definition is that it is possible to climb a tree at maturity, in comparison to shrubs which cannot be climbed.

Deforestation rates
Total land area of Ghana is about 23.85 million hectares. At the beginning of the last century, about one-third (i.e 8.2 million hectares) of the area was covered by high forest while the remaining two-third (15.7 million hectares) was savanna woodland (Owusu et. al., 1999). The area of high forest (off reserve) has drastically reduced and the only remaining portions today are mainly in protected areas. Records show that at the turn of the last century, Ghana had about 8.8 million ha of primary forest. By 1950, the area had been reduced to 4.2 million ha and further to about 1.5 million ha by 1999 (Owusu et. al., 1999). This implies that from 1900 to 1950, the nation lost 50% of its primary forest cover and also lost 60% of it between 1950 and 1999. On a 100 year scale (1900 to 2000), the nation lost over 80% of the closed forest (a reduction from 8.8 million ha to 1.5 million ha). Farrhead and Leach, (1998) estimated the deforestation rate to be a massive 22,000ha per year around the late 90’s. From some more recent trends, reported that, between 1990 and 2000, the average annual deforestation rate was 1.82%. Also, between 2000 and 2005, the rate of forest change increased by 4.2% to 1.89% per annum. The recent FAO 2010 report has estimated Ghana’s deforestation at 135 395 ha per year.

Causes of deforestation
The causes of deforestation are numerous, interrelated and complex in nature. Most causes can be linked to livelihood and development. There are both direct and indirect causes. The indirect (underlying) causes are those factors that trigger the actual causes and these include; poverty, ignorance, corrupt practices of governments, security & forestry officials, weak institutions, inappropriate policies, lack of law enforcement, lack of concern by local communities, land tenure issues among others.

According to Nsenkyire (1998), the main causes in Ghana are (i) forest clearance for cocoa and food crop farms and (ii) logging (both legal and illegal). Illegal logging is a major cause of deforestation, depriving the Ghanaian economy of fibre, legal employment and tax revenues. This is done by selfish people who try and keep all the benefits away from the nation. Legal logging could also still be harmful to forest if not done in environmentally friendly ways. Clearance of forest for agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation not only in Ghana but in the whole of Africa (FAO 2003). Because of reducing soil fertility, an ever increasing area has to be planted in order to grow sufficient food. As a result, rural families clear portions of land yearly for crop cultivation. Other causes of deforestation are shifting cultivation, bush fires, harvesting of fuel wood, human settlements and overgrazing. Conversion of forest lands for industrial activities or infrastructural development is another cause of forest loss. Examples include forest clearance for mining, industrial development, building of stadia, schools and other large infrastructure projects.

Suggested Solutions 
One would think that the solution to degradation and deforestation lies with stopping the direct causes of deforestation. I agree with this only to some extent. In my opinion, halting forest loss should rather tackle both the direct causes and indirect causes, i.e. both prevention and cure. For example, one direct cause of deforestation is illegal logging. In trying to fight deforestation, we may not go very far if we are merely trying to stop illegal logging. We might be better off solving the underlying cause of illegal logging which may be weak institutions or corruption or both. Similarly, we can only stop deforestation triggered by poverty when we have been able to tackle and deal with the poverty problems. Poor families who cannot afford alternative energy sources for cooking cannot be stopped from harvesting fuelwood since this will lead to hunger. In developed countries, the majority of people do not directly depend on the forest for energy to cook, hence it is easier to conserve forests.

The Ghana forestry commission is committed to tackling deforestation. Their efforts will not be successful until they are complemented with efforts of forest fringe communities. These groups often know of illegal activities in their local forests but tend to condone these activities. It is common recently to find chain saw operators even in northern Ghana selecting and cutting the few economic trees left in the area. Local people are those who help these illegal people to locate such trees in order to make their own gains at the expense of the whole of the nation. These rural dwellers may not be well informed about the benefits of preserving trees and even if they know, they value the money they get from chain saw operators much more than allowing the tree to stand.

There should be more training given to forestry officers to enable them to deal with the challenges of forest management in current times, in particular their ability to work together with forest fringe communities. With the advent of climate change for example, foresters must be equipped with necessary skills and technologies to be able to adapt to the anticipated changes. They should also be trained to understand and implement forest management approaches such as reduced impact logging, sustainable forest management, multiple use forest management, participatory forest management, and community forest management among others which have been found to be useful in other countries.

In addition, just like many crime related issues, Forestry officials need the support of other state security agencies to deal with these illegal activities. The police, customs, and military all have a role to play in the campaign against deforestation and illegal logging. I observed that most logs illegally cut in Upper West Region of Ghana were being transported across to Burkina Faso, through the borders. Training border officials in the identification of illegal logs is required. Government must step up forest protection by ensuring a multi-sectoral approach. Government should also review existing laws to ensure that punishments for illegal logging activities are severe enough to discourage people.

Increasing forest cover?
The only way to regain lost forest is by reforestation or afforestation. Reforestation is to plant trees on land which carried forest within the previous 50 years or within living memory. Afforestation on the other hand is to plant trees on land devoid of forest or land that was deforested in the distant past. The Ghanaian government has been making great efforts to increase the nation’s forest cover through plantations. Since 2000 the Forestry Commission of Ghana has embarked on a national plantation development programme with a target of 20 000 ha a year (FAO 2010). This is to be applauded but should also be done with more participation from local dwellers. Successful schemes such as joint forest management, participatory forest management and community forest management should be introduced and studied. Tree planting could be made easier by encouraging local people to get involved through provision of incentives. Initiatives such as ‘Tree Aid’ provide an example of how such aspirations can be realised.

The protection of the nation’s forest is a collective responsibility of every Ghanaian. Hence every citizen should be a guardian of the remaining trees and be inspired and encouraged to plant trees. Some people argue that trees take too long to grow but I say that it is better to plant today and have it in 50 years than not to plant today and be forced to plant it in 50 years and end up using it in 100 years or more from now. I would like to end with an old Greek proverb which says, “a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”.

Help prevent deforestation now!

Credit: Guuroh Reginald Tang

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Dr. James Walmsley of the University of Wales, Bangor-UK 

1. FAO 2006 and 2010 reports
2. Owusu, J.G.K, Abeney, E.A, Frimpong, E.A (1999). Workshop for media personnel on forestry and wildlife reporting
3. Fairhead J, Leach M (1998) Reframing Deforestation: Global Analysis and Local Realities –
Cases from West Africa. London: Routledge

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