Africa's forests at risk if indigenous 'rebels' excluded - experts

African forests are endangered.
African forests are endangered.
Image: FADEL SENNA/ AFP

Initiatives to restore African forests, decimated by loggers and land-hungry farmers, must include indigenous people if they are to succeed, experts said on Wednesday.

Analysis shows that forest-dwelling communities often sabotage efforts to plant or safeguard trees when they are excluded from them, whereas they can prove valuable allies if they are brought on board, they said.

"When you don't give a chance to forest people like the Ogiek to own their ancestral land, they feel like they are rebels," said Daniel Kobei, head of the Ogiek Peoples' Development Program, which promotes his community in Kenya.

"They feel they are neglected and their rights are not protected, yet this is their ancestral home," he said at the Global Landscapes Forum, a conference on sustainable land use.

Tensions are rife around the world between conservationists, who believe the best way to protect forests is by creating reserves where humans do not live, and millions of indigenous people who have been expelled from their traditional lands.

With Africa's population expected to nearly double by 2050, demands are increasing on already scarce land, pushing people to invade forests for agriculture.

Dozens of countries have committed to restore 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of degraded forest lands by 2030 under the African Restoration Initiative aiming to conserve water, boost harvests and combat climate change.

The Ogiek won a landmark case against the Kenyan government in Africa's highest human rights court in 2017 over their eviction from the Mau forest - Kenya's largest water catchment area - in the Rift Valley.

Since then, the community has restored over 100 acres of the forest, with the support of the government, by replanting and guarding forests in areas where they live, Kobei said.

The Ogiek are optimistic of returning to their ancestral forests as the government has pledged to honour the ruling by the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The world's indigenous people and local communities have historically used and owned half of the land globally, but they only have rights to less than one-fifth of it, according to analysis by the development charity Oxfam.

After the eviction of the Baka people from the Ngoyla-Mintom forest in Cameroon in 2012, widespread logging took place said Israel Bionyi, a spokesman for the International Land Coalition advocacy group.

"The presence of indigenous people in these spaces makes it difficult for logging companies to take advantage of the forest," he said. (Reporting by Kevin Mwanza, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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