By Charlton Doki
South Sudan is losing its forests. And with no unified policy to deal with the situation the government is at odds, with one ministry saying that the loss of forests is a necessity for farming and another warning of the dire environmental consequences if this continues unchecked.
Several decades of war, during which the country’s environment was neglected, coupled with post- independence challenges and tension with Sudan, have resulted in environmental degradation here. And it is largely caused by rampant deforestation.
Isaac Woja, an agriculturalist and natural resources management expert, said the rate of deforestation was of concern.
“The rate at which people are cutting trees is worrying. If this trend continues future generations are going to suffer. South Sudan may become a desert like what you see in the north,” he told IPS.
While there is no information on the exact number of forests in the country, according to 2009 figures from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, forests and woodlands cover an estimated 29 percent of the land area in South Sudan or 191,667 square kilometres.
A study conducted in 2010 by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), dubbed the Forest Resources Assessment, estimated that a high rate of up to 2,776 square kilometres of forests and other wooded land were being lost annually in South Sudan.
The cutting down of forests to clear land for cultivation started in 2005 after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which formally ended the recent civil war (from 1983 to 2005) between the then south and north Sudan.
However, deforestation has worsened since independence as South Sudanese who have been living as Internally Displaced Persons in Sudan began returning. According to the U.N. in the last 18 months alone 350,000 people have returned from Sudan. In addition, an unspecified number of people have also returned from neighbouring countries following South Sudan’s independence on Jul. 9.
South Sudan’s government has allocated the returnees land to settle on, including in areas near forests. Many have resorted to farming as a way to earn a living, and have begun clearing nearby woodlands for cultivation.
This has been occurring mostly in Eastern, Western and Central Equatoria states, in the south of the country, and to a smaller extent in Western and Northern Bahr al Ghazal states, in the country’s north. These states have the most fertile arable land in South Sudan.
In an interview with IPS, the director general in South Sudan’s Environment Ministry, Victor Wurda Lotome, warned that although investing in agriculture would help the country’s economy, if the environmental risks associated with mechanised, commercial agriculture are not considered, the damage to the environment could outweigh the financial benefits.
Woja explained how a drought could result from deforesation: “Forests also help in the making of rain. Deforestation means that in the years to come the affected areas will receive less or no rainfall at all.” However, South Sudan’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Betty Achan Ogwaro said it was impossible for farmers in the greater Equatoria region, which contains a large number of woodlands and forests, to cultivate land without cutting down any trees.
“We are still battling with our partners like USAID (United States Agency for International Development) who are telling us don’t cut those trees, just plant between the trees. But is this really true? Can we really increase productivity if we don’t cut some of the trees down?”
“I think we should have only 10 percent of the trees in farming areas so that farmers have more space for crops.”
Ogwaro said South Sudan needed to use tractors to boost food production, adding that tractors could only be used if farmlands were cleared of trees. “People are asking for tractors. That is why we are saying that you have to cut some trees in order for you to be able to use a tractor on your farm,” she said.
“Although the total area under cultivation in South Sudan is still low, it is expected to increase proportionally with the increasing population. This means we will be seeing more forests being cleared,” Woja said.
He added that if the land was not farmed correctly, the soil could be negatively affected. “The other thing with mechanised agriculture is also that if the tractor operators are not knowledgeable on how to plough they could end up establishing a hard layer, which could stop water from entering the soil,” Woja explained.
But returnees say they have no other option but to cut down forests as their ancestral land, which is communally owned, has been over used and can no longer yield good harvests. And many feel they can cut down the trees because “the forests belong to nobody”.
A consultant at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that since 2007 to date foreign companies, government and individuals have acquired at least 26,400 square kilometres of land for agriculture and bio fuels projects. This, he told IPS, was a considerable amount of land.
In South Sudan’s Central Equatoria state large chunks of land were cleared with bulldozers to create space for maize production. A source in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry claimed a Canadian- owned company ran the project. Portions of forests are also being cleared in Juba and Terekeka counties in Central Equatoria state and in Yambio county in Western Equatoria state.
Earthwire Africa May 2012
..And without water / rain it doesn’t matter whether you plant crops or not…… Please conserve what we have, water is life. No trees, no rain, no crops, no food ….