Paul Laird, ITF Programmes Manager, reports on our new partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Rural Agriculture and Development (CSRAD) in Ghana. ITF is supporting their project for the Conservation of Montonnso Sacred Forest.
The project aims to ‘eliminate encroachment and destructive activities’ in the Forest. CSRAD intends to provide 10,000 native agroforestry tree seedlings to cocoa farmers and to plant another 15,000 native trees within or around the boundaries of the Forest. Perhaps more importantly they see the need to educate the communities around the Forest to fully understand its conservation value, and the rules and regulations that govern its use, so that they will protect it for the benefit of future generations.
Montonnso Sacred Forest is tiny – only 14 hectares – but remarkably well preserved; the traditions of the surrounding community associate the Forest with certain deities or spiritual powers which will punish any encroachment. But it is difficult to grasp the scale of the threat to such remnants of rich biodiversity until you visit the area.
Long before you reach the small village of Saamang in Wassa Amenfi East District, Western Ghana, you realise that it is not only the forests that are under threat, but the entire landscape and way of life. The threat comes from ‘illegal’ gold mining, with companies operating behind closed gates with discreet signs. There is visibly a desperate rush to rip off surface vegetation and unleash machines to churn up the yellow soil and leave the surface pitted, gullied and mired.
The mining takes place in broad daylight alongside every road, so the word ‘illegal’ has lost its normal meaning. The miners have ‘permits’ of some kind. The hunt for gold rips up farms and patches of forest. Farmers are ‘compensated’ in some way – some may be lured by quick financial gains, others may simply not have any choice. Obviously someone, somewhere benefits. But the damaged land will never again support the richly diverse farms and forests. Abandoned mining areas are left devoid of vegetation and partially flooded with water, likely to contain mercury.
Illegal mining has been going on for years. But in Wassa Amenfi East, it is the arrival of Chinese investment, machinery and personnel that has hugely increased the scale of operations since 2013. The town of Wassa Akropong has become the focal point of this gold rush. Mining equipment is on sale everywhere behind barbed-wire-topped walls, with signs in Mandarin. The Chinese-supervised mining operations are recklessly dangerous. Ghanaian workers sit perched on structures in the midst of the devastation, sluicing water over the ore, while digger machines swing the raw material over their heads and dump it in front of them.
Of course the trashing of African landscapes to extract raw materials is nothing new, and China is only the latest of many countries involved, but there is a new urgency in this scramble for Africa. As Tim Marshall says in his recent book Prisoners of Geography: ‘The Chinese … are scouring the length and breadth of the whole of Africa for minerals and precious metals’.
A Sacred, Pristine Forest
I was joined by Ebenezer Cudjoe Adebah and Emmanuel Ackon of CSRAD, James Johnson Normenyo of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and Charles Oteng, Chief Ranger of the Forestry Commission. In Saamang village we were welcomed by local elders and farmers who accompanied us on the walk into the forest. Cocoa is the main crop in the area, but farmers also grow plantains, oil palms, cassava, maize, coco-yams, citrus and coconuts.
This is a warm humid place with lush vegetation, and there are plenty of patches of degraded secondary forest. But Montonnso Sacred Forest appears almost pristine. Tall buttressed trees tower overhead. Charles the Forest Ranger identified at least 10 different canopy species, and the understorey forest floor vegetation is rich and diverse, including species valued by local people for a wide range of properties (including Allanblackia – which has attracted worldwide interest as a source of vegetable oil).
Yet there are signs of current usage of the forest: people gather edible snails and hunt for rats, ‘grass-cutters’ and small antelopes. Monkeys and larger wildlife have long since been frightened off. And there are signs of timber cutting and encroachment at the forest edge, now clearly marked by concrete beacons established by CSRAD in a former project funded by the New England Biolabs Foundation. Yet these threats pale by comparison with the risk of destruction if the gold trail should lead towards the forest.
Community Engagement for Conservation
Leaving the forest it was heartening to meet farmers Kwabena Mensah and Kodjo Tawiah who proudly showed us the trees they have planted in their cocoa farms. They have long since realised that cocoa exposed to full sunlight actually yields less than a partially shaded crop. They now actively protect tree seedlings that grow amongst the cocoa and plant more of their preferred species – Terminalia superba – as handsome as its name, growing up to 60 metres in height.
Back in the village we sat in the cool shade of cocoa trees and drank coconut milk. It was encouraging to see the collaboration between farmers, traditional leaders, Government and NGO staff, and their shared understanding of the importance of conserving the Forest and enhancing the health and productivity of what is potentially a very sustainable farming system. But they will need all the help they can get if the gold miners set their sights on the forest.
About the Author
Paul Laird is ITF’s Programmes Manager. He has worked with ITF since August 2015.