Our Burning Planet


Why Africa must become the Conservation Continent

Why Africa must become the Conservation Continent

Africa has been at the receiving end of the monikers of others, from the pejorative ‘dark’ continent of the 19th century to be labelled more recently, first, as ‘hopeless’ and then, a decade later, as ‘rising’ by The Economist. It’s high time for Africa to carve out its own epithet. The Conservation Continent is a positive option for many good reasons.

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to amplify Africa’s development challenges – essentially the result of high population growth and historically too low economic growth – and accelerate the pace at which governments will have to act and deliver to citizens. 

The immediate challenge for African leaders is to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis and to reposition the continent beyond Covid-19. The local-over-global reflex to the pandemic poses risks to African growth, such as those implicit in a deep-seated political call for businesses to go “home”, thereby reducing the reliance on outsiders. 

As African leadership thinks about the longer-term imperative of diversification and transformation, they might have opportunities few of their counterparts elsewhere possess in allocating a greater share of land to conservancies, providing a new avenue for tourist development. A big policy bet on the environment today could pay unimaginable dividends, and quickly.

Certain sectors – such as manufacturing, agriculture, mining and trade – may recover relatively quickly once the Covid-19 crisis blows over, presuming there is a re-establishment of demand and supply in global value chains. Tourism is likely to be quite different, however, because it may never return to a pre-Covid-19 “normal”. 

Until the crisis, global tourism seemed an unstoppable force for positive change. Tourism generated income of $562-billion in 2000. By 2019, revenue was estimated at just under $3-trillion, while the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimated the overall contribution of travel and hospitality to be $8.9-trillion, accounting for 10.3% of global GDP. Passengers, too, increased from 90 million to 1.5 billion over this time, while global employment (direct and indirect) stood at 330 million, or one in 10 jobs worldwide, with nearly $948-billion invested, or 4.3% of the global total. 

In June 2020, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) forecast that the global tourism industry would lose at least $1.2-trillion during the year due to the travel restrictions and consumer wariness caused by the coronavirus pandemic. These losses, some 1.5% of the world economy, were projected to double if travel did not recover by March 2021, with the harshest effects on developing and island nations according to UNCTAD. Yet some major airlines, including Emirates, did not at the same time expect recovery until 2022. 

Africa has been a relatively slow mover compared to other regions in the attraction of international tourists. In 2018 Africa received around 5% of the estimated 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals.

This should not undersell the importance of this lifestyle sector to the continent. To the contrary, the environment and its related tourism offerings remain a key comparative African advantage. The sectoral GDP contribution of tourism to Africa has picked up over the five years before Covid-19 to reach around 3% of GDP. This reflects natural assets of weather, wildlife and an appealing service culture. But African tourism, even pre-Covid was, however, vulnerable to the burden of long flights and dodgy airports, perceptions and realities of safety, onerous visa regimes, health risks, and the arbitrariness of a sometimes sullen and poorly paid bureaucracy. 

It is certain that, at least in tourism, there will be a “new normal”. Africa’s challenge is to find a way to reposition itself to attract international travellers. For starters, mass-tourism may be at its end, with the old model of “more tourists equals more money” being replaced by more price-segmented holidays, with a focus on the high-end of the spectrum. Bums-in-seat tourism is unlikely to work as it once did in a post-Covid-19 world.

As the world shifts focus to quality of life issues, there is a link with the environment, where Africa could, with the right focus and prescient policy, enjoy comparative advantage.  

In July 2020, the Waldron Report was released, promoting and assessing the economic costs and benefits of setting aside 30% of the world’s land and sea mass for protection. This benchmark is one the proposals for the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity, and a target of the draft post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Currently, some 16% of the land and 7.4% of the ocean is in areas designated or proposed for protection, although only 2.5% of the ocean is in highly/fully protected areas. This level of protection, the Waldron Report notes, “is widely acknowledged as being inadequate to achieve biodiversity protection goals”. 

There are many tough decisions to be made in Africa in the aftermath of Covid-19. By viewing this as less of a crisis and more of an opportunity, it may be possible to use this unprecedented pandemic to pivot Africa from its current development course and ensure growth in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

Currently, 17.7% of sub-Saharan Africa’s land mass is protected, with large variances within, from Republic of Congo (40.7%) and Namibia (37.9%), through Ethiopia (18.5%), Kenya (12.4%) and South Africa (8%), to Somalia (0.8%) and Lesotho (0.3%). In southern Africa, Tanzania (38.1%), Zambia (37.9%) and Zimbabwe (27.2%) are all around the 30% mark.

The Waldron Report comes on the back of the loss of an estimated two-thirds of the Earth’s wetlands and half of the world’s rainforests over the past four decades. 

Pressures on the natural world pose threats to clean quality and safe drinking water sources, the survival of wildlife, the prosperity of remote communities, nature’s ability to protect us from future natural disasters, including pandemics, and the intensifying impacts of a changing climate. 

Yet in every crisis there is, as is suggested above, an opportunity. 

Africa can continue down the path which industrialised nations have relentlessly pursued, or it can heed the warning signs and take seriously the very real economic benefits of investing in nature in carving out a different path to prosperity. 

There are many tough decisions to be made in Africa in the aftermath of Covid-19. By viewing this as less of a crisis and more of an opportunity, it may be possible to use this unprecedented pandemic to pivot Africa from its current development course and ensure growth in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

The 30% target offers one of those strategic moments to redefine Africa’s passage towards a more sustainable solution. 

Before Covid-19, few might have believed the scale of the threat posed by tampering with nature. The message is today clearer: act now to protect nature, and our future, and in so doing offer Africa a unique development opportunity. DM

Absa OBP

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