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Africa’s vast forest potential untapped, circular bioeconomy could help

“We can do it, we know how to do it, so now – let’s do it,” says Robert Nasi
On the road to Adama, Ethiopia. CIFOR/Ollivier Girard

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Africa has enormous potential to derive more value from its forests without producing more wood, and could thus provide a good example of the possibilities of the circular bioeconomy, says Lauri Hetemäki, assistant director, European Forest Institute (EFI).

Africa produced 54 percent more wood and has four times more forest area than the European Union in 2019; yet the export value of EU forest products was 17 times greater than in Africa – $100 billion compared with $6 billion, he explained during a digital summit demonstrating the potential benefits of a circular bioeconomy.

The “Nature at the Heart of a Global Circular Economy”  digital forum, which opened with an address by Britain’s heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, brought together policymakers, economists, academics and researchers on Friday.

While deriving greater value from its forests, Africa could advance its environmental, economic and social sustainability, said Hetemäki. But to realize all of this, Africa must also develop its circular forest bioeconomy and supportive polices.

The concept – an economy powered by nature and sustainable use of its many resources – offers a unique opportunity to use renewable natural capital to holistically transform and manage land, food, health and industrial systems, proponents say. The model focuses on minimizing waste, and replacing the non-renewable, fossil-based products on which most economies rely.

“The circular bioeconomy means, above all, creating an economy where life – and not consumption – is its true engine and purpose,” said Marc Palahi, director of EFI, during the opening of the event organized by EFI, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF), with the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, in collaboration with the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) and the Sustainable Markets Initiative Circular Bioeconomy Alliance (SMI CBA).

For example, in the past Gabon earned mere pennies from each dollar’s worth of wood its people harvested and exported, distorting attitudes and leading to deforestation and loss of ecosystem services, said Lee White, minister of Water, Forest, the Sea and Environment. Part of the solution lies in convincing the people of Gabon that their wood is now much more valuable and therefore, worth conserving – paradoxically, by creating substantive jobs in the timber industry within the country.

“If we can create sustainable forestry industries, we can create hundreds of thousands of jobs and that gives us a constituency of people who are vested in maintaining the forest,” said White, describing this as an “industrial ecosystem…or, what the world is calling the ‘circular economy,'” he said.

“That’s how we get the Gabonese people to become the protectors of forests that we need them to be,” while also protecting the Congo Basin more broadly to achieve the goals of the U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change. The 2015 pact aims to prevent mean annual temperatures from rising more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Keeping people and their communities “at the heart” of a bioeconomy is critical to its success, said Christopher Martius, managing director of CIFOR Germany. “Otherwise, it will not move forward in countries that are stricken by poverty and missing policies.”

The crisis provoked by the coronavirus pandemic, along with a rising interest in sustainable investment, means the world must move quickly “to seize this window of opportunity,” for change, said Prince Charles, a long-time advocate for the environment. He leads the Sustainable Markets Initiative, which he launched at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2020. Its goal is to support an informed transition to a climate-neutral, inclusive circular bioeconomy through a multi-stakeholder approach.

“The time for talking is past,” Charles said in a video message. “We must invest in nature as the true engine for a new economy — a circular bioeconomy that gives back to nature as much as we take from her in order to restore urgently the balance we have so rashly disrupted.”

Akanksha Khatri, head of Nature Action Agenda, WEF’s Platform, Global Public Goods, said: “We need solutions on steroids.” Those solutions should focus as much on the effectiveness of institutions as on market mechanisms. This would require working in close collaboration with local governments, community-based organizations and improving program transparency.

“Restoring nature is essential to us achieving sustainable development; we see that our present economic models are a threat to nature and to our wellbeing,” said Sharon Ikeazor, Nigeria’s minister of state for environment. Nigeria is counting on the circular bioeconomy model, which is nature focused, but boosts employment, fights poverty, and supports the well-being of Nigerians while making use of their traditional knowledge, she said.

“The majority of our people in live in forest-dependent communities and so the restoration of degraded landscapes could definitely drive economic development and create employment.” Because a circular bioeconomy brings together technological and traditional nature-based solutions, it would also support industrial and technological transformation, Ikeazor added.

The bioeconomy is actually the world’s original economy to which we are now returning, said Mari Pantsar, director, Sustainability Solutions at the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra.

“We really need systemic change to solve the sustainability crisis, with climate change, nature loss and pollution,” Pantsar said. “A holistic approach will not only tackle these, it can also tackle social challenges.”

This digital summit has demonstrated the potential of a circular bioeconomy to create new, sustainable industries and livelihoods – all that is missing now is concerted action, said Robert Nasi, director general of CIFOR, and managing director, CIFOR-ICRAF.

“We can do it, we know how to do it, so now – let’s do it.”

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