Deforestation in Sub-Saharan Africa, Mongolia, and the Amazon Rainforest

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

By Mason Williams

*Numbers at the end of sentences are footnotes.

Amazon Fire. Image Credit: Time Magazine.

This paper is concerned with looking at deforestation in three developing regions of the world: Sub-Saharan Africa, Mongolia and parts of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. The causes, effects, and possible solutions to deforestation in these regions are examined and discussed with other environmental issues, ensuring a widespread look at how they currently affect the world. It is necessary to first define the following key terms:

• Hectare- a metric unit of square measure equivalent to 100 ares (2.47 acres or 10,000 square meters)

• PPM- Standing for parts per million, it is a measure of how many pounds of Carbon Dioxide are present in 1 million pounds of air

With these terms established, the examination of contemporary deforestation can begin.

Part 1: Sub-Saharan Africa

To examine the harmful effects of deforestation, a close look at Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically Nigeria, is essential. Imagine a standard family living in rural Nigeria. This family comprises five people: the father, Idris, heads the household and works as a farmer of plantains. He is married to Esther, whose primary occupation is to take care of their three children. Living in the rural part of the country, this family does not have consistent access to electricity, which means they must look to other sources to access heat and power. The father routinely cuts down trees that surround his farm, not merely for the extension of farmable land but also for use as fuel in the form of firewood. A family lifestyle like this one is not at all uncommon in Nigeria: In 2003, only 34% of rural Nigerians had access to electricity as opposed to 85% in urban areas and as of 2016, 51% of the Nigerian population lived in rural areas of the nation1. In 2014, it was estimated that only 25% of Nigerians had access to the country’s electrical grid, increasing the need to use firewood as a means of fuel for those living in rural areas.2

As of 2003, an estimated 84% of rural Nigerian households were using firewood for fuel as opposed to 41% of urban households3. In urban areas, the use of oil and natural gas is more widespread than the use of firewood, yet the infrastructural inconsistencies of these industries maintains the demand for firewood as an alternative energy source. Such demographics are largely what led to Nigeria having the highest rate of deforestation in the world in the mid 2000’s. Figures by the United Nations estimate that between 1980 and 2005, Nigeria lost a staggering 80% of its old growth forests4. As of 2012, half of Nigeria was still properly forested, however, with a current deforestation rate of 3.5% (350,000- 400,000 hectares per year) Nigeria will continue to see widespread yearly deforestation.

When examining environmental issues that continue to plague Sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria is a useful case study: many of the issues it is currently facing also exist in neighboring African nations. Studies have shown that across the entire continent, 90% of people use firewood and brush for cooking; those same sources account for 52% of all energy sources on the continent5. Furthermore, as a region of the world that is still largely developing, Nigeria serves as an interesting template for the potential growth that its peer nations could experience. By GDP, Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy- in the first quarter of 2018, its economy grew 1.9% in a surprising decrease from the previous quarter’s 2.1%: despite this, the growth rate is positive and marks Nigeria’s fourth consecutive expansive quarter6. While Nigeria’s growth rates are promising, the reliance on oil as a major source of both energy and economic growth, as well as the continued rates of deforestation, are worrying. For African nations that are not endowed with an abundance of oil, the dependence on firewood and forestry is even higher; for those with small economies, the capability for growth is severely hindered. In Nigeria’s case, it would be essential to facilitate the development of alternative energy sources as a method of economic fortification and forest protection. Additionally, using Nigeria as a launch point for such initiatives could have a net positive effect if other developing African nations follow their example and work together to improve these technologies. While Nigeria could see widespread success by implementing such strategies, for now, the intersection of deforestation and rising temperatures is ushering in a worrisome threat that will put millions at risk in diverse locales around the world.

Part 2: Deforestation to Desertification

On rural Nigerian farms around the country, anxiety is beginning to set in. This year, there has been record low rainfall and abnormally high temperatures; to Idris and others like him, it seems that each year the climate grows more arid and his farm becomes less productive. Known as desertification, Nigeria is experiencing a phenomenon that puts the lifestyles of people in Nigeria and around the world at great risk.

A Threat to Traditional Life

9,670 kilometers from Nigeria, a way of life and a culture is on the brink of extinction. The nomadic herders of Mongolia are facing the expansion of the Gobi Desert, a large desert region that borders their homeland as well as China in the south. The herders of Mongolia are facing an uncertain future as the weather and climate patterns they have come to recognize and rely on for the past 3,000 years are rapidly changing. With temperatures in Mongolia rising 2 degrees Celsius on average over the past 6 decades, the summers are becoming hotter and the desert is expanding, while winters are growing harsher and rain falling only sporadically, if at all. To the 25% of the Mongolian population that continues to herd, these changes threaten their entire way of life in a variety of ways. Mongolian herders are nomadic- their lifestyle consists of guiding their herds of yaks, camels, horses, sheep, and goats to available pastures that are suitable for grazing. These pastures change with the seasons allowing the herders to keep their flocks fed and producing the abundance of dairy products that the herders both consume and sell to local townspeople.

Furthermore, the Mongolian herder way of life is closely tied with their culture and identity. Now that harsh winter storms kill thousands of valuable livestock, the grassy pastures don’t grow when they used to and the encroaching desert continues to eat away at available grazing land, many Mongolian parents wonder about the viability herding for their children: man-made climate change has irrevocably altered the conditions needed to maintain the Mongolian herder lifestyle. While the climate change aspect of this problem is almost impossible remedy quickly, could something not be done about the desertification that continues to consume Mongolian land? To answer this question, we must explore the causes of this desertification in the provinces of China.

Ashes to Ashes, Grass to Dust

Step back with me; the year is 1958: Chairman Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” has just been promulgated and on a collective farm in Inner Mongolia, the farmers have been instructed to plant grain on their new land. Grain has never grown well here in the coarse soil and windy environment but to the farmers, this challenge is embodied in the promised ‘hard work for a few years; happiness for a thousand’. Unfortunately, the landscape does not modify itself for Mao’s plan and the stubborn soil refuses to yield much grain; in fact, the grain plants restrict the growth of grass and prevent the soil from blowing away in the wind. Rather than yielding plentiful crops as Mao had imagined, over the next few years, the once lush and fertile Inner Mongolian Environment becomes replaced with now expanding, ever infertile, Gobi Desert.

In recent years, far removed from the failed ‘Great Leap Forward’, China has made strides to improve issues that exacerbate rapid desertification and growing deforestation. For example, to save its extant forests, the Chinese government implemented the National Forest Protection Program in 2000. This program aimed to ban logging in 68.2 million hectares of forest land and in 2014 these initiatives were extended to include state-owned natural forests which are mainly used for commercial logging8. China’s most recent five-year plan indicates a continuation of efforts to ban logging throughout the entire country as leadership strives to maintain economic and environmental security over the next few years. Regarding the expansion of the Gobi Desert, China is currently working on a creative solution for this issue. Starting in 1978, China implemented the Three-North Shelterbelt Project, known colloquially as ‘The Green Wall of China’. The program entails planting of millions of trees along the northern Chinese border to curtail the rapid expansion of the Gobi Desert- the project will not see its conclusion until 2050 and thus far over 66 billion trees have been planted9. Despite this seemingly well thought out solution, the program may need more oversight to be truly effective. As of right now, the trees are often planted along the border and people chalk up their efforts as a victory; however, later on, in an example of forlorn irony, the saplings die as the very desert they were planted to fight suffocates them with dry heat9.

Environmental degradation is not the only consequence of rising temperatures and increasing desertification: additionally, these present a death sentence for the sustainability of the nomadic Mongolian lifestyle. It’s worth acknowledging the role that overgrazing has played in rapid desertification as well- the population densities in parts of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia will ensure that remaining grasslands will continue to dwindle as nomadic herders grow increasingly desperate for usable land10. The conditions in Mongolia are urgent–it is important that China continues its efforts to curtail desertification and reforest the depleted forests in and around the nation. With more human involvement, the ‘Green Wall of China’ could become an iconic preservation effort capable of achieving the prestige

associated with its namesake “The Great Wall”; both of which serve as examples of unbridled ingenuity. Mongolian herders can do their part as well by working together to prevent overgrazing and continuing their stewardship of the grasslands they have called their home for centuries.

Thus far, I have focused exclusively on the effects of deforestation as they relate to human populations and while it is certainly important to understand what deforestation can do to mankind, we are far from the only creatures affected. In a final look at the ill effects of widespread deforestation, we shall travel 15,000 kilometers from the grasslands of Mongolia to one of the greatest bastions of biodiversity on planet Earth.

Part 3: The Amazon Rainforest

The White Cheeked spider monkey is a curious little creature: one of the lesser known South American spider monkey species, these primates are endemic to the forests of Brazil where they serve as critical stewards of the environment by dispersing the seeds of the trees through which they swing. White Cheeked Spider Monkeys commonly travel in groups of two to four while being members of larger ‘families’ that contain up to twenty or thirty members. As of right now, there’s not much more that we know about these interesting monkeys and it may well remain that way- the habitat of the White Cheeked spider monkey dwindles daily due to the building of roads and the extension of soybean farms into the Amazon rainforest. Additionally, the monkeys are hunted as a delicacy in the South American bushmeat

trade which further lessens their numbers and has resulted in their endangered status.

The White Cheeked spider monkey has yet to reach the point of no return in extinction but with every tree felled in the name of Brazilian economic expansion, the species inches ever closer to that tragic condition. This environmental effect does not uniquely affect the White Cheeked species. The spider monkeys and other discovered creatures of the Amazon rainforest continue to face the threats of deforestation and hunting as well, but they differ from their White Cheeked peers in that their identities are known to the world- the Amazon rainforest is home to an estimated 2.5 million insect species, 16,000 tree species as well as countless avian, mammalian, reptilian, and amphibian species11. Scientists have classified hundreds of thousands of invertebrates alone and statistics at the onset of this decade indicated that three new species were being discovered in the Amazon every day. It is very likely that hundred, if not thousands of species have already gone extinct since the Amazon’s deforestation began- as of right now, the rainforest has lost no less than 17% of its original spread12. The rate of deforestation in the Amazon and its effects on plants and animals is dizzying and frustrating, but the issue cannot be addressed until its source has been exposed.

Forest to Farmland- A Common Thread

On the outskirts of the Amazon rainforest, Brazilian farmers are clearing land to make way for their soybean crops and despite the government’s efforts to protect over 50% of the Amazon’s land, economic crisis and the desire for stimulus have rendered these initiatives less effective. If this narrative sounds familiar, it is because it is; widespread deforestation in Nigeria is occurring for largely the same reasons. While there are certainly disparities in the way

these two regions have undergone the process of decimating their respective forests, the commonalities paint a broader picture of the situation. Simply put, developing nations such as Brazil and Nigeria rely heavily on industries like farming to provide food and economic security for citizens. Furthermore, developing nations tend to have high population densities which necessitates expansive transportation networks and more living space in general. The result of these elements is increased logging and widespread deforestation; the narrative remains identical despite the differences of the two countries involved.

Looking Towards the Future:

In early March of 2018, the supreme court of Brazil relaxed the penalties for deforestation and reversed a previous measure that would have required the reforestation of 112,000 acres of Amazonian land. Brazilian Attorney General Grace Mendonca rationalized the decision as an attempt to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection, but with a situation so dire, now is hardly the time to be relaxing regulations13. The question then arises: how can we combat deforestation and ensure the economic development of developing countries? In my estimation, the solution is twofold: firstly, nation states must find alternative ways of economic stimulation outside of the extensive farming that leads to deforestation. Secondly, the importance of forest preservation must become ingrained in the collective consciousness of humanity: this can be done through both education and international condemnation of those who willfully ignore efforts to preserve the world’s forests.

On the economic front, countries such as Nigeria and Brazil continue to see rising deforestation due to extension of farmland and increasing urbanization. These are hardly easy issues to fix and indeed, making more farms will certainly strengthen the economy in the short term. Despite this, it is important that the long-term effects of deforestation be emphasized to the farmers who continue to extend their land. More land will yield more crops, but global temperatures continue to rise due to the saturation of CO2 in the atmosphere. With less trees to convert CO2 to valuable Oxygen and render the soil farmable, long term rising temperatures and soil degradation will eventually transform lush and fruitful pastures into deserts and wastelands. Scientists have calculated that the trees of the Amazon rainforest consume about 2.2 billion tons of CO2 per year14.

While education is always a helpful element, how can Idris or the Brazilian soybean farmer make a living without expanding their land? As a way of easing the importance of the farming industry, Nigeria, Brazil, and China should continue to invest and develop alternative energy sources. Industries like solar, hydroelectric, nuclear and wind, are not only great alternatives to coal and gas power but they also create jobs for citizens. The proliferation of these industries will create new opportunities for the citizens of these nations and will spur economic development and a rise in the standard of living- the bottom line is, developing nations cannot have contemporary versions of the industrial revolution which saw coal use become the primary vehicle of mechanical development during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What if all the above measures fail and countries continue to ignore global efforts to preserve forests? Punitive measures can be levied in the form of global event restriction: if a country like Brazil wants to host an event like the Olympics or the World Cup, a close look is taken at their environmental protection efforts. If things aren’t up to par, then the nation is barred from consideration. This can go both ways as well- countries that make massive strides in environmental improvement could receive priority consideration to host events of this type. Punitive measures like economic sanctions should be avoided: in many cases, restricting trade access merely puts more impetus on nations to develop more domestically which will inevitably lead to further pollution and deforestation.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

Compared to issues like atmospheric CO2 levels and rising global temperatures, deforestation hardly receives the attention necessary to spur widespread unified action. Despite this, deforestation stands out as a massively important issue that if left unchecked, will compound with the worsening effects of CO2 pollution to create a truly unsalvageable environmental crisis. Issues associated with deforestation affect all human beings but especially those in developing nations. By dealing with such issues, we can secure better lives for these communities and help contain the effects of climate change for at least a little while longer.

The eminent astronomer Carl Sagan once noted the values his profession taught him with special emphasis on “our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.” Sagan’s words were made in reference to a photo of the Earth taken by Voyager I on February 14th of 1990. The image is hauntingly beautiful and it effectively emphasizes our insignificance on a cosmic scale.

Say all you will about the possible existence of alien life and the efforts of our greatest minds to colonize Mars-- right here and right now; that pale blue dot is all we’ve got. Here on its surface, the pale blue gives way to lush green forests that need protecting, and white cheeked monkeys that inhabit the branches of the dwindling trees. Voyager I will continue to traverse the cosmos; a longstanding testament to human ingenuity and curiosity, and yet I can’t help but wonder what good its journey represents if its creators, in their search for other planets, lacked the foresight to protect their own. While there’s no way to know for sure what the future holds, one thing remains constant: we must protect the Earth-- its forests, its oceans, its animals, and its people. I hope you will join me in the renewed commitment to protecting those patches of green on our pale blue dot.

1 World Bank rural population percentages [5]

2 Huffington Post: Why Nigeria Generates So Little Power [2]

3 Demographic and Health Surveys Report on Nigeria [7]

4 Rhett Butler: Nigeria [3]

5 Yvonne Agyei: Deforestation in Sub-Saharan Africa [1]

6 Stephanie Moya: Nigeria GDP Annual Growth Rate [8]

7 Case Study: Mongolian Herders [9]

8 Forests Trends: China’s Logging Ban in Natural Forests: Impacts of Extended Policy at Home and Abroad [10]

9 National Geographic: Alexandra E. Petri-“China's 'Great Green Wall' Fights Expanding Desert.” [11]

10 Zambyn Batjargal: Desertification in Mongolia [12]

11 “Field Museum Scientists Estimate 16,000 Tree Species in the Amazon” [14]

12 Stephen Messenger: Amazon Rainforest Teeming With Undiscovered Life [16]

13 David Gilbert: “Brazil's Top Court Just Made It Easier to Cut down the Amazon Rainforest.” [17]

14 Becky Oskin: “Amazon Rainforest Breathes In More Than It Breathes Out.” [18]

15 Brian Kahn: “We Just Breached the 410 PPM Threshold for CO2.” [19]

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