Saving Africa’s miombo woodlands

COMMONPLACE— Distribution of miombo woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa

By Temwani Mgunda:

In August last year, delegates from nine African countries convened in Maputo, Mozambique, to sign a transnational blueprint for sustainably managing Africa’s miombo woodlands.

These woodlands form a biome of tropical and subtropical grassland, savanna and shrub land that stretches across some 2 million square kilometres of central and southern Africa. Characterised by the prevalence of the Brachystegia tree genus – miombo in Swahili – they are a vital habitat for thousands of animal and plant species, and are presently facing massive plunder.


The Maputo Declaration issued in August, also known as the Miombo Initiative, now looks to halt and address the threats to the biome.

“The declaration was drafted to deliver three key objectives,” said Claudio Afonso, national director of forestry at Mozambique’s Ministry of Land and Environment. “Namely, to promote miombo forest management for climate resilience and community development; to protect miombo forests as a carbon sink to ensure emission reductions for the regional NDCs [nationally determined contributions to the Paris climate agreement]; and to conserve miombo forests to save the Zambezi Basin.”

The nine countries to sign the declaration are Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, which will serve as the Miombo Initiative’s focal point. South Africa is not home to miombo woodlands but is included because of its experience in forestry management, according to Afonso.


Why cross-border conservation initiative?

Across central and southern Africa, miombo woodlands contribute to erosion reduction, climate and microclimate regulation, and mitigation of and adaptation to climate change through carbon sequestration. They are also responsible for maintaining the greater Zambezi Basin – one of the most important transboundary river basins in southern Africa, which coincides with much of the miombo woodlands’ range.

A 2014 study on the significance of miombo woodlands detailed how they support biodiversity and contribute to the global carbon balance, sequestering between 0.5 and 0.9 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year, with increased sequestration in young miombo trees. The study explained how miombo woodlands can increase resilience against the impacts of floods, droughts and other extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.

Many miombo areas are tourist attractions, as they provide a habitat for popular – and often endangered – animal species, including rhinos, elephants, giraffes and lions.

Perhaps most importantly, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that miombo forests support the livelihoods of more than 100 million rural people and 50 million urban residents through their provision of various non-timber forest products, such as insects, mushrooms, honey, fruits, tubers, seeds, medicine and wood fuels.

But miombo woodlands are under threat. In the 15 years between 2006 and 2021, the miombo woodland area has decreased from 2.7 million km2 to 1.9 million km2, according to the Maputo Declaration. The woodlands are under pressure due to cutting of trees for timber and charcoal, mining and the practice of shifting agriculture. In a region with widespread energy poverty, reliance on the woodlands for firewood and charcoal is a key driver of deforestation.

In Tanzania, for example, where around 93% of the country’s total forest cover consists of miombo woodlands, deforestation and degradation has reached an average of 400,000 hectares per year, Professor Dos Santos Silayo, chief executive of the Tanzania Forest Services Agency told China Dialogue.

The critical significance of the miombo woodlands and their spread across national boundaries, coupled with the threats they are facing, has moved the nine countries to embark on their joint conservation initiative, forestry director Afonso said.

Speaking at the signing of the Maputo Declaration, Mozambican president Filipe Jacinto Nyusi emphasised that miombo woodlands conservation is of “collective interest, for the good of the people and the planet”.

“Climate change does not respect borders,” President Nyusi added.

Setting targets and deadlines

The Southern Africa Development Community’s Protocol on Forestry notes that miombo is of immense value to communities and countries. But much as the Miombo Initiative is regional, it also aspires to play a part in broader continental and global environmental goals.

The stated aim of the initiative is “to leverage the capacities and alliances of the African continent, to jointly and decisively use and manage miombo woodlands sustainably to achieve the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development… the African Union Agenda 2063, the nationally determined contributions (NDCs), and those called for in the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests at the Climate Summit.”

Afonso said the implementation of the initiative would be a secure and assured way for the southern Africa region to work towards achieving the climate mitigation and adaptation goals proposed in the African Union’s (AU’s) new Climate Change Strategy and Agenda 2063.

“The two AU documents place emphasis on a number of issues that have been adequately addressed in the Maputo Declaration,” Afonso said. He highlighted its mention of issues such as modern agricultural practices to increase productivity; sustainable natural resource management and biodiversity conservation; the building of environmentally sustainable and climate-resilient economies and communities; and the promotion of renewable energy use.— China Dialogue

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