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Conservation of Africa’s forest offers great benefits

By Godwin Atser
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Preserving Africa's surviving tropical forests and planting new trees to replace those lost to deforestation could help reduce the severity of climate change by absorbing more carbon from the air, and ease the local impact of climate change by regulating local weather conditions, scientists have said.

They also cite the forests' roles as watersheds, defences against soil erosion and conservation pools for biodiversity.

According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), indigenous forests in Africa are being cut down at an 'alarming' rate of about 3.4 million hectares per year, making the continent the region with the second highest net annual loss of forests in 2000-2010.

But reforestation and education on the benefits of conservation are critical to stemming and reclaiming Africa's lost forest and biodiversity, says Dr. John Peacock, who is manager of the IITA - Leventis Foundation Project, during the 2010 Open Day held on November 6.

The 2010 Open Day was marked with the planting of indigenous trees by IITA staff in Ibadan to help mitigate the effects of climate change and losses in biodiversity.

The planting of trees comes at a time when deforestation rate in Nigeria—Africa��s most populous black nation— has reached an alarming rate of 3.5% per year, translating to a loss of 350,000–400,000 hectares of forest per year. In 1976, Nigeria had 23 million ha of forest; today only 9.6 million ha remain—less than 10% of Nigeria's total land area.

Peacock says the planting of trees is part of a new initiative to restore rainforests in Nigeria. IITA is also contributing to the important UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) initiative in Nigeria.

Through the IITA-Leventis Project, the team, particularly Olukunle Olasupo and Deni Bown, have raised over 15,000 seedlings of 33 different species since February 2010 in preparation for planting next year, with at least as many again hoped for during the coming dry season when most tree species produce seeds.

“We would like every family, represented by staff members in IITA, to plant an indigenous tree next year as part of IITA's activities to increase the forest area,” Peacock adds.

Earlier this year, IITA and partners made efforts to raise awareness of the need to preserve biodiversity—a term that describes the variety of living organisms—especially in forests that are increasingly becoming lost or threatened. For example, statistics indicate that Nigeria's Milicia excelsa (iroko) has become endangered, with about $100 million worth of iroko timber illegally poached from remaining forests last year. “The unfortunate thing is that these very valuable trees are not being replaced,” Peacock notes.

Over the years IITA has championed efforts not only to increase crop productivity but also the conservation of biodiversity and natural resources including water and forest. Today, the 1000 ha at IITA Ibadan campus is taken up by research, administration, and residential buildings, lakes and experimental plots, and a further 350 ha comprises valuable secondary forest. This forest can be compared to an oasis in the desert and is dominated by a canopy that includes fine specimens of Milicia excelsa (iroko), Ceiba pentandra (silk cotton tree), Celtis zenkeri (ita-gidi), Terminalia (afara), and Antiaris toxicaria var. africana (akiro).

In 1979, an arboretum was established comprising 152 different tree species, 81 of which are indigenous. Peacock says the IITA-Leventis Project plans to increase the forest area and the IITA arboretum with the planting of more indigenous trees.

Another area of importance to the project is education, particularly of school children, says Deni Bown, project coordinator and medicinal plant expert with the IITA-Leventis Project. “In this regard we are educating the young on the importance of afforestation and conservation,” she says.

Peacock and his team are hopeful that through reforestation and education, the rate of deforestation in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general will be significantly reduced.