Forests are shrinking across the globe as corporations clear land for grazing, local inhabitants cut firewood and waste water pollutes ecosystems.
For decades now, it has seemed that forest decline was simply unstoppable. But countries like Rwanda and The Gambia have proven just the opposite: with consistent policies and good ideas, they have managed to make their forests grow.
Rwanda is one of just three countries in Central and Western Africa that has succeeded in reforesting on a large scale. The country introduced a national forest policy in 2004 which was updated in 2010. It turned the country's forests into a building block for business and development. It includes massive reforestation and planting measures in cooperation with local populations and methods for agroforestry and forest management. This has led to an increase in forested areas in Rwanda by 37 percent since 1990.
These reforesting actions are very important to local populations: healthy forests provide food security and reduce poverty in the country. Agricultural productivity can only increase when preserving the forests and the bodies of water in them takes top priority. Protecting the national parks that cover around 10 percent of Rwanda draws tourists and increases income for the country. Animals profit too: endangered species such as the chimpanzee have found new living spaces in the forests.
"Rwanda is an inspiration for the entire world" were the words used at the "Future Policy Award" ceremony in September 2011 in New York where the East African country took the gold medal for the best forestry law in the world. This prize is awarded annually by the World Future Council (WFC), a Hamburg-based foundation, for the best laws in a specific policy area. WFC Director Alexandra Wandel explained that by honouring exemplary political solutions with the Future Policy Award, the WFC seeks to increase awareness of these "best practices" and speed up the legislative process.
With its law, Rwanda promotes more than just its forests, according to Wangari Maathai, the recently deceased founder of the Green Belt Movement, Nobel prize winner and honorary WFC member: "The country also uses the law to revolutionize its approach to women's rights and create a healthy environment."
The example of Rwanda demonstrates that there are political solutions to forest decline - and the need for them is desperate in many other countries as well. After all, life on earth is unimaginable without trees. Yet every day more than 300 square kilometres of forest are destroyed. 1.6 billion people worldwide are dependant on forests, which provide a home for more than 60 million of them. Forests are much more than the most biologically diverse ecosystems on land; if cared for properly, they could also absorb almost 20 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Other African countries are also successfully preserving their forests. The Gambia was the winner of the silver Future Policy Award 2011 in recognition of its communal forest programme. By reforming its forest policy, this African state succeeded in increasing total forest cover by 8.5 percent over the last twenty years.
Before the reform in 1995, Gambian legislation emphasised the ownership rights of the government over the forests. The rights of communities to use forest resources were very strictly limited. This had catastrophic consequences like illegal logging, widespread forest fires and clearing for agriculture and settlements.
In contrast the new law is intended to sensitise people to forest preservation and gives The Gambia's rural population a key role. Within a maximum of three years, communities have to successfully manage their forests and practice effective forest preservation. If they can demonstrate success, then ownership rights to the forested areas are transferred to them.
Currently over 350 villages participate in the forest programme, own over 29,000 hectares of land and manage 12 percent of The Gambia's forested areas. This has resulted in less illegal logging and fewer forest fires, which has meant that new markets for wood products could be established.
"The jury decided to acknowledge two African policies that empower people," Alexandra Wandel explained the jury's decision. "The winners' laws are so successful because they emphasise the strong interrelationship between the environment, the economy and responsibility."
Experts are convinced: when the people of rural Africa have ownership rights to resources and land, they will assume responsibility for their own lives. It is very important for communities to participate in developing and implementing laws that affect their livelihoods. Giving rural populations a central role is an integrated way to address poverty and reforestation through legislation.