The Future of Africa’s Forests

Driving from the Outpost to camp in the Middle of Nowhere made for welcome escape.  Getting away from it all was how His Nibs put it. What the All is – exactly – is tricky to articulate when one lives in an Outpost such as this: certainly not the traffic. Or the hurlyburly 9 to 5 existence the rest of world is obliged to live. Or – more’s the pity – a social life. But it offered a welcome opportunity to get away from something.

And – much less welcome – bitter, bitter reminder of what may become of Africa unless something is done soon. Of what may already have become of her.

Our 100 mile drive took us through beautiful Miombo woodland and indigenous forest, just beginning to show new lacy green ahead of the rain (how does Mother Nature know when it’s going to rain; for she does: all the signs of imminent showers are here).


But then – quite suddenly, as we rounded a bend – huge swathes, huge ugly holes in the forest, where the trees have been slashed and the scrub burned. Each new, hopeful glimpse of trees still standing was shattered by corresponding devastation.  Like some ominous tableau of the future of our planet.


Sinsister rows of bags of charcoal stood n ranks beneath healthy trees, macabre omen of what would become of the trunk and boughs offering shade.


Africa’s forests are disappearing with horrifying speed. Each season thousands of trees are felled to clear land to cultivate maize. Why can’t they leave the trees, I want to know, plant around them. My husband has farmed here for more than 20 years. He sighs. They can, he says, it’s just easier – quicker – to cultivate without trees in the way. But the trees would offer the crop shade and sustain the soil, he adds. As it is, every year, as acres of indigenous forest fall, so the problems that accompany deforestation are exacerbated: erosion leaves ugly gashes in the earth’s suface, the soil is powdery like talc, testimony to its flimsy structure: it cannot hold water or nutrients or a crop of maize.

When trees aren’t being felled to cultivate, they’re falling to the charcoal burners. If I have the ear of Messers Affleck and Damon, perhaps they could consider promoting some of the fledgeling alternative fuel enterprises here? Save Africa’s trees boys, that’ll save lives. For it’ll save an Africa to grow food in.

Some of the trees were strung with beehives – bedecked like some alternative Christmas tree. This region is the primary honey producer in Tanzania.  Honey hunters fashion hives out of bark and hang them high in the uppermost reaches of the trees. It sounds – and looks – the ultimate in organic honey harvesting.


Except that it’s not.  In order to acquire the bark necessary to make the hives, the hunters ring bark trees. Which die.


In one small copse of trees, the bark hives had been replaced by synthetic ones. Certainly they were less attractive, but they still do the job. Without compromising the future of the forest.

Soon – on account of the shortsighted cultivation methods, the charcoal burners, the honey hunters, there will be no trees left to harbour the pollen and insect population necessary to support the region’s biggest industry; there will be no shade under which toiling farmers can rest, no leaf fall to add depth and substance to the soil, no trees to hold Africa together.

Anybody engaged in Making Poverty History must see the big, big picture. Not just fleeting glimpses of bits of it. In order to make poverty anything approximating history, those who are engaged in the effort must understand the hearts and minds of Africa and rural Africans.  What use is a drive to save lives from disease if they’re going to fall to hunger? Because the land will not yield food, because livelihoods – like those of the honey hunters – have been compromised by the fall of the forests. It’s not about being an idealisitc well fed tree-hugger; it’s about understanding that each piece of a jigsaw must be within reach in order for a picture to be whole. If just one is missing, the picture lacks cohesion and substance and meaning and – most importantly – sustainability.

If aid agencies could reflect on the whole, and if they consolidated efforts to do as much, perhaps there’d be a chance.  In one area of slash and burn, where the trees had almost all gone and the ground quite bare, black where the scrub had been subjected to recent fire, grey where the ash still clung to the dust, I spotted a gentlman clamber out of a 4×4 bearing the name and logo of an international medical aid organisation. He was, judging by the way he was instructing the labour involved in the exercise, clearly ringing the death knell of this particular patch of forest.

But I oughtn’t be so harsh; he’s got the lofty job of saving lives. Why on earth would he need to worry about the future of Africa’s forests?



8 Responses to “The Future of Africa’s Forests”

  1. Gillian Says:

    Hi Mem,

    I’m enjoying your new photo-capability!

    There’s an article here (link below) about honey production in Kenya – falling due to forests under threat. It’s a great blog about African agriculture. You might know it already…

  2. R. Sherman Says:

    Africa is about 50 years behind in sustainable agriculture. Part of the problem is that it is so labor intensive. Further, governments, out of a desire to protect jobs, prohibit the import of Western implements and genetically modified seed stock which increase crop yields on smaller parcels, especially in drought prone areas.

    In Missouri, for example, corn, wheat, and soybean yields are more than double what they were in the 1950’s thereby allowing a restoration of forests and native prairie. In the United States, we now have more forest area than existed in 1870.


    P.S. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. — RDS

  3. minx Says:

    Gosh, and there was I thinking that Africa could now benefit from all the mistakes that the rest of the world has made…..

  4. Tom Says:

    As the most powerful species on the planet we are certainly making a mess of things

    Sometimes I long to return as a amoeba to the primordial soup

  5. Roberta Says:

    I will not send you a picture of my wood gnome, which hangs on my wall in the livingroom to ward off forest fire.

    Here we are surrounded by trees. When one succumbs to disease or age, we feel it deeply. I love my trees so much that when building this house, we wrapped the deck around a mighty hickory tree instead of cutting it down. (Sadly, this year, I lost the red maple I loved outside my kitchen window.) We will bring her down later in the fall and she will keep us warm this winter.

  6. Iota Says:

    I love the passion with which you write, and the plain down-to-earth common sense. I hope you have a chance to put your views to someone who could make a difference.

  7. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thanks very much Gillian; that’s a great site.

    Mr Sherman. Yes; we’re a long, long way behind here. But the thing about the labour is that it does provide such valuabe jobs in the absence of any kind of welfare or support for local people.

    Minx – sadly, oh so sadly not.

    Tom – aren’t we just, making a horrible mess of things.

    Roberta – I think your trees and your decking sound lovely. I only have scrawny citrus trees to look at in my ”garden”, and a couple of mango trees. Outpost is full of them, legacy of the slavers caravans apparenty. Thankfully their wood is no good and their fruit valauble as food so perhaps they won’t all get chopped down. People here own rights to the mango trees, on Zanzibar they own rights to palms; if you were to buy land, you’d have to buy rights to the trees first.

    thank you very much, Iota, sadly I don’t think anybody who has the bank balance or the clout to make a difference reads a word of what I write, far less the letter I addressed to them all!

  8. R. Sherman Says:

    Just a quick follow-up re: jobs. Mechanization doesn’t eliminate jobs — it justs shifts them to other areas of the economy. Farm laborers would be employed in a different area of the agricultural sector. For example, if Tanzania had surpluses of corn, labor would be needed to facilitate exports: longshoremen, railroad workers, truck drivers, etc. Additionally, the cost to the consumer of the goods created would decrease because of greater supply.


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