Along the Atlantic coast at the southwestern tip of the Gambia, the local stewards of Konoto forest had to take drastic measures to ensure the survival of their woodlands. Last year, they agreed to a two-year moratorium: no logging, wood harvesting, cattle grazing or visiting without authorization. The strict rules were meant to protect the new trees they had planted to regenerate the forest.
The Konoto and the community that depends on it are representative of a struggle that will occur in much of the developing world over the next decades: how to feed a growing population with limited space? In many places, the answer is simple: replace forests with fields. Currently, agriculture is responsible for more than three-quarters of global deforestation, according to a 2016 report, “State of the World’s Forests,” from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
But the Gambia is a rare country that is managing to do both: produce more food and grow more forests. How so? Since 1990, the government has progressively transferred ownership of forests to more than 500 local communities that now manage around 10 percent of the country’s forests. And that’s working wonders, according to that 2016 FAO report:
Over the past 25 years, the Gambia has expanded woodlands by 10 percent while increasing cropland and halving the number of undernourished people.
“It is one of the first countries that has slowed and reversed deforestation rates,” says Dominique Reeb, who works on forestry at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which tracks forests in the Gambia and elsewhere.
“When communities have the ownership of a forest, they protect it,” adds Saikou Janko, president of the All Gambia Forestry Platform, which coordinates community forest groups. Around the world, research shows that deforestation rates are two to three times lower in forests owned by indigenous groups and local communities.
Certainly, the people living around Konoto are highly motivated to protect their critical asset. It provides logs and charcoal for cooking, palm fruits for making oil, nutritious bush fruits such as kabba and folley, and a place for beekeeping. Villagers use money earned from selling these sustainable products to cushion unexpected financial blows. “Before we go to the bank, we use that cash for any emergency — rushing somebody to hospital [or helping] a child being driven from school because of fees,” Buba Touray, the community group’s secretary general, tells OZY.
Yet challenges remain. The transfer of ownership has not spread evenly to all regions of the Gambia, so there are still places that face deforestation and forest degradation. And the process of handing a forest over to a community is long and arduous: It can take years for the government to train local groups to manage forests sustainably.
Teaching often-illiterate rural communities about science can be a “major challenge,” agrees Alagie Manjang, an official at the Ministry of Environment. Because of degrading agricultural land, deforestation cannot be stopped without a shift to sustainable agriculture, as forests will keep being cleared to grow food otherwise, he says.
While the 1990s marked the start of community forestry in the Gambia and an increase in forest cover, progress stalled in the next decade, when the policy was all but stopped by dictatorial President Yahya Jammeh. The new government, elected in late 2016, plans to increase the forest areas owned by communities to 15 percent of the total woodlands. “With the change of regime, there’s hope they’ll move much faster now,” says the FAO’s Reeb.
In Konoto, managing the local forest hasn’t put an end to all the villagers’ troubles. They struggle to pay the 60-odd people who patrol the woodlands day in and day out to thwart intruders. And their next fight: a Gambian sand-mining company that locals say now threatens the survival of the forest.
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