In Africa, we must see the wood for the trees
Tu BiShvat, which falls this year on February 6th, is the Jewish New Year for Trees — the, biblically approved, original Arbor Day. Its message is two-fold of course. Not only is it a day to reaffirm our commitment to the environment, but to acknowledge that not all we do has immediate reward — or even reward that we see in our lifetimes. The old man planting a tree is not doing it for himself but for those who come after, and it is that level of social responsibility that we must all aspire to.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Tu BiShvat is commonly used today to raise awareness of climate change.
As someone who has worked for decades in Africa, the continent where the impact of climate change is perhaps most desperately felt, Tu BiShvat is particularly significant. Perhaps surprisingly, 26 percent of the continent is classified as forest, but about four million hectares of these forests are cut down each year — nearly double the speed of the world’s already too rapid deforestation average. The causes are connected to Africa’s population rise, and the concomitant increase in agricultural production, commercial logging, and the popularity of charcoal as a cheap source of cooking fuel. The results are severe droughts and floods, and unprecedented threats to biodiversity.
This deforestation reveals the dilemma facing Africa: how can the continent develop without the destruction of its natural environment? This is an especially sensitive issue given that Africa — despite being the smallest historical contributor to global warming — is most impacted by it. Thankfully, it is stepping up to the challenge of ensuring a greener and more sustainable future for humanity. For example, both Angola and South Africa recently advanced for solar projects worth billions of dollars.
The key to this approach is sustainability. The continent has 60% of the world’s arable lands, and enormous alternative energy resources in the form of solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and green hydrogen. This approach is at the heart of our work at Mitrelli, from the Water for All project in Angola, which brings healthy water to remote villages that previously had hand-drawn water from various sources, to the Aldeia Nova rural settlement, which combines agricultural production with large-scale centralized service facilities that support farmers by providing animal feed and mechanical equipment, along with produce processing, packaging, and marketing tools.
A similar approach needs to be taken to reforestation. The logging industry must be regulated, and forest protection schemes must be developed. The new 10-year agreement from the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) to protect the Congo Basin Rainforest is an important step in the right direction, but there is still much more to be done. Another, even more ambitious example is provided by the Great Green Wall of Africa, which was conceived by the African Union in 2007 as a 7,000 kilometer (4,350 mile) barrier stretching from Senegal to Djibouti to hold back the deserts of the Sahara and the Sahel. It is making steady progress, but it still needs more funds, technical support, and oversight for its lofty ambitions to be fully realized. This, as with other projects in Africa, requires international investors to become part of the positive transformation of the continent, allowing Africa to fulfill its potential and meet the challenges of the era.
The United Nations recognizes this with its Sustainable Development Goals, strengthening the foundations for human and national growth, wellbeing, and prosperity, while respecting and preserving local cultural traditions. Any international investor in Africa must work in that vein, to provide innovative comprehensive solutions in environmental protection-oriented projects that promote a better and greener world by protecting the global natural ecosystems. Crucially, it is also about empowering communities, as by protecting a suitable ecosystem, we enable entire communities to become healthier, self-sufficient, and contribute to their own wellbeing.
My decades on the continent have helped me appreciate that Tu BiShvat is more than just a celebration of nature; it is a reminder of the need to create a more sustainable future. In Africa, that can only be achieved with a long-term commitment from partners around the world. Israel is famously the only country in the world that had more trees at the end of the 20th century than it did at the beginning of it. By thinking big, we can achieve similar seemingly impossible dreams in Africa, not just with regard to reforestation but in nearly every area of life.