By Stephen Kansuk and Ayirebi Frimpong
Forests and trees have always contributed both directly and indirectly to human health either through the provision of medicines and foods or services such as clean water, air, or shade. In Ghana, there are great economic benefits of medicinal plants use. This is widely recognized all over the country, with about 60% to 70% of the populace estimated to depend directly on medicinal plants from forests and trees for their primary health care.
The theme for this year International Day of Forests “forests and health” is apt for two reasons- the world is still transitioning from the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, public health and forests are intertwined in that forest has historically contributed to improved health outcomes and facilitated the development of traditional medicines in Africa and in particular Ghana. This year’s theme recognizes the fact that our dependence on forests, trees and their related services goes beyond the need to provide a sustainable means of producing and consuming timber and non-timber forest products. It embraces the very fact that our wellness as humans is one that cannot ignore the continuous existence of forests.
Challenges in spite of great efforts
In Ghana, current annual deforestation and forest degradation rate is equivalent to 135,000 hectares loss of forest cover every year. These losses are driven primarily by a number of factors such as agricultural expansion, illegal logging, unclear land and tree tenure arrangements, and illegal mining.
Ghana has over the years put in place innovative programmes and strategies to curtail deforestation and forest degradation. Ghana’s REDD+ Strategy, for example, aims at reducing carbon emissions by addressing deforestation and forest degradation, in addition to sustainable management and conservation of forest biodiversity, and enhanced carbon stocks. In line with this is the implementation of initiatives such as the Community Resource Management Areas (CREMAs) and the Modified Taungya Systems (MTS) which seek to ensure more wholistic approach of co-management of forests with communities. However, these are at their crossroads, faced with the challenges of lack of clear incentives, especially for communities, to drive the needed results.
Yet our high forest zone still has farmers engaged in massive farm expansion using farming practices such as shifting cultivation, slash and burn, and the use of pesticides and weedicides that have effects on our health.
Heeding the clarions call to action – what we can collectively do.
The saying that: “when the last tree dies, the last man dies”, is not just a recognition of how important trees and forests are to our survival. It is also a clarion call to action to protect forest for human health. This is a realization that the challenges facing the survival of forests are deep-seated and requires a behavioral change. Citizens need to recognize, first and foremost that we have a duty to use forest resources by following clear guidance. This will ensure that these resources, which are renewable in themselves, are allowed to be restored for future use. We need to recognize that as much as the forest requires us to protect, conserve and restore it, we equally need the forest for our survival and our wellbeing. Constant sensitization can help bring the message down on the need to protect the forest for our survival.
Partnership is key
It is evident that there is the need for continuous partnerships to help build the trust of communities in the systems put in place to support Government’s forest restoration and sustainable use drives. UNDP together with Mondelez International and the Ghana Cocoa Board set a useful example. Through the Environmentally Sustainable Production Practices in Cocoa Landscapes project, communities have over the past 7 years been helped to see the clear benefits of integrating trees on farms, with over 1.2 million trees being planted by cocoa farmers over the period.
Robust, inclusive, and functioning forest governance system
The conservation, protection, and restoration of Ghana’s forests rest mainly on the nature of the engagement between different actors such as the government, private sector with the communities. A robust and inclusive governance structure will undoubtedly help safeguard our forests and human health. This will also make significant contributions to the fight against climate change. One of the emerging issues from UNDP engagement with communities in forest restoration effort is that forest communities are increasingly demonstrating interest to partner with Government and the private sector in managing forests and forest resources. So, systems and arrangements that foster these opportunities should be strengthened. The success of the UNDP supported Weto platform, is an evidence that multistakeholder approach involving the communities can advance protection, conservation and restoration of Ghana’s forests. The multi-stakeholder approach led to the conservation of 135,500 hectares of forestland, boosting ecotourism towards citizens well-being in Ghana. Let’s continue to seize the renewed interest by communities to safeguard our forest and fully benefit from the health outcomes.
Technology and digitalization can advance sustainable forest management
Digital technology presents an enormous development potential for monitoring forest health and human health. Digital technologies such as cloud computing, mobile devices, IoT (Internet of Things) platforms, remote sensing, smart sensors and big data analysis and algorithms are just few examples of ways in which we can enhance forest environment monitoring, data acquisition, and analysis of the linkages between human and environmental health. We therefore need to adopt appropriate digital technologies and enhance capacity for their use to facilitate Ghana’s efforts to advance forest management and regeneration.
As we mark yet another UN International Day of Forests, may we all continue to see our forests and trees not just as the sources of wood for our beautiful dressing stands but also as a source for the dressing for our wounds. May we mark the day full of hope for the future of our forests for our benefits.
The authors of the article are both with the UNDP in Ghana. Stephen is Head of Environment and Climate while Ayirebi is a Forest Specialist