Africa: Bushmeat, Charcoal, Oil & Gems

The tragic ironies of “development policy” are nowhere seen more clearly than in the “bushmeat crisis” of Central Africa. The problem arose as overcutting wiped out old West African stands of “exotic hardwoods”, and loggers began building roads into rainforests so remote that the wildlife did not know to run from human hunters. The loggers, and the diners in the burgeoning cities of countries like Gabon and Cameroon, created an industry whose volume is estimated at over $50 million US per year (which does not, of course, show up on any national accounts). Monkeys and other primates, including rare chimpanzees and gorillas, are especially prized, but all manner of wildlife are taken, including antelopes, snakes and elephants.

The two countries just mentioned, Gabon and Cameroon, are as heavily indebted as any in Sub-Saharan Africa, and were strapped for cash because of declining demand for oil and cacao. Timber revenues gave them a way to meet their debt payments. Then, currency devaluations slashed the cost of building logging roads into some of the most remote forests left anywhere in the world — places even the Pygmies had never gone. Poor people, having flocked to cities in search of economic opportunities, welcome bushmeat as a reminder of earlier days — and anyway, it is cheaper than beef, pork or chicken.

This phenomenon is not new; when the forests of Western Africa were being logged out in the 50s and 60s, a similar process took place. The forests that are left west of Nigeria have lost the greatest part of the wildlife that they once supported. What is new — and chilling — in today’s version is the primevality of the forests being invaded, and the utter lack of any effective management or regulation.

The crisis is portrayed as a classic problem of overpopulation — and the sad but inescapable demands of modernization. A fact sheet from the “Bushmeat Crisis Task Force,” for example, informs us that “Logging companies provide revenues and employment essential to the economies of West and Central Africa.” This assumes, of course, that people in these nations have no way to make a living other than by growing cacao or felling ancient trees for export. And, by and large, they don’t — because they don’t have access to the land held by the large cocoa-planters. The planters, meanwhile, have no incentive to plant more profitable crops, because their cost for holding large tracts of farmland is, essentially, zero.

Commitment to stopping the bushmeat trade seems thus far to have been completely theoretical. The failure to make a dent in an ecological tragedy that is so egregious — and so photogenic — shows the utter futility of trying to implement environmental policies in developing countries under present conditions. Such nations, although they are replete with valuable natural resources, seem incapable of providing for the basic needs of their people, or of enforcing the most basic regulations.

Different Worlds

Every ton of greenhouse gas goes into the same air and causes the same effects. It’s everyone’s problem — though some places, by accident of geography, will have to endure worse effects, such as low-lying Bangladesh, hurricane-prone Caribbean islands or coastal cities such as Mumbai or Washington DC. Nevertheless, developing nations don’t take kindly to being told not to use the fuels that brought prosperity to rich nations. For example, China overtook the United States in 2007 as the world’s largest producer of CO2, though the United States continues to produce far more greenhouse pollution per capita. India’s industrial economy is also growing rapidly. These trends show why the problem of climate change must be addressed internationally — and underscore the difficulties to be faced in arriving at a workable program. A poor country with a relatively inefficient economy may use energy very wastefully — and yet, because of its vastly lower overall consumption, may contribute far less to overall greenhouse emissions than a richer country.

Access to electricity across Africa

To illustrate some of the counterintuitive dimensions of this, let’s consider the energy economy in Africa. In many African countries, reliable fuel for cooking is hard to come by. People use firewood, when they can get it. Until pretty recently, they could gather dead wood, in forests that seemed too big to ever be depleted. However, charcoal, which is wood (preferably hardwood) carbonized by burning in a hot, low-oxygen flame — is a better fuel for cooking. An industry has arisen to provide it. Hardwood trees in unregulated forests are logged and burned. This releases CO2, of course, and also depletes the forest. The market for charcoal grows as more people leave the countryside and gather in cities, and more people gather in cities as the countryside gets denuded of its forests. Meanwhile, there are abundant reserves of more efficient fuels: in Nigeria, billions of cubic feet of natural gas are burned annually, in continuous flares, the flames of which can be seen from outer space. Obviously natural gas is a much more efficient fuel than charcoal. Yet no one has yet found a way to profitably fund the infrastructure that would allow Nigerian gas to be used. This has much to do with the “resource curse” character of Nigeria’s economy: exploitation of its crude oil resources brings easy profits to a privileged few. Nevertheless, to replace African charcoal fuel with natural gas would confer great environmental benefits.

In net terms, however, Africa’s energy economy, wasteful as it is, is barely a drop in the climate-change bucket. Africa is the world’s most sparsely-populated continent — even counting the vast open spaces of Russia and Canada. Among continents, Africa also has by far the lowest per-capita energy consumption. Charcoal is cheap in Africa precisely because there are still large expanses of forest to chop down and burn. No African country is anywhere near the top tier of greenhouse gas emitters. The entire continent of Africa, population 1.22 billion, emits less CO2 than India — and much, much less than the United States.

Oil & Gems

Africa’s persistent underdevelopment is often contrasted to that of the Asian “Tigers” (South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan) in which declining population growth coincided with rapid industrial development. While it is true that demographics played a role in the East Asian nations’ rapid development, it’s also true that their situations could scarcely be more different than those of Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, South Korea has few natural resources. In 1955, its population density was about 251 people per square kilometer. Nigeria is blessed with abundant natural resources of many kinds — and its capital, Lagos, will soon become Africa’s largest city, with over 22 million people. Seems like a lot — yet Nigeria’s population density today is 58 people per square kilometer. Nigeria’s population could quadruple, and still be less dense than South Korea’s was before its rapid industrialization began.

Africa’s current population density is 25 people per square kilometer. North America’s is 23.

There is, of course, plenty of land in Africa. Even after decades of deforestation, it boasts wide expanses of virgin wildlife habitat; there are wild elephants in Botswana, lions and giraffes in Uganda and Tanzania, and beleaguered mountain gorillas still hanging on in Rwanda and Congo. There is enough land to support nomadic herding peoples in the East and hunter-gatherer Bushmen in the Southwest.

There is also abundant land available to be sold off, in alarmingly large amounts, to foreign buyers. Since 2000, some 26 million hectares of land in Africa, an area about the size of Oregon, has either been sold to, or is in negotiation with, foreign buyers. The land is mainly used either for (export) agriculture, or for forestry. This is a burgeoning practice, because it is very profitable for investors and offers quick cash to cynical politicians. Most of the lands being sold or leased at bargain prices are in the possession of national governments. As such, they are often farmed or grazed by local people at no cost; those people are displaced when the lands are given over to private tenure, which increases the pressure on sprawling cities. Make no mistake, this is a despicable practice that harms poor African people. Yet there is still time to halt it before irreparable harm is done. While an area the size of Oregon over fifteen years seems like a lot, in Africa that isn’t as huge as it seems. Oregon is roughly the same size as Ghana; find Ghana on the map of Africa.

Deal-makers in cash-strapped governments say they need the money, but there would be better ways to get it: land sell-offs are a counterproductive giveaway of national sovereignty. What most of Africa’s nations really need are the classic elements of prosperity: access to education, health care, safe drinking water, reliable infrastructure and, indeed, to their continent’s nearly unimaginable profusion of natural resources.

To see how these facts play out in the real world, it is useful to compare two African nations that have some things in common, yet seem to be on very difficult political/economic trajectories: Nigeria and Botswana.

Nigeria is the world’s poster child for the “Resource Curse.” It is awash in oil and natural gas, and has, arguably, the largest economy in Africa (a 2014 recount showed Nigeria’s GDP to have passed that of South Africa). Yet its people have little else going for them. Nigeria exports 2.4 million barrels of crude oil per day, and imports 180,900 bbl/day of refined petroleum products. Its poverty and quality-of-life numbers are decidedly “third world,” and it has allowed international oil firms to devastate the ecology of the Niger Delta — formerly one of the earth’s most bountiful and varied habitats. Though it has, in recent years, achieved stable transitions of power after presidential elections (it hasn’t always), Nigeria’s political system remains one of the most corrupt in the world.

Things are more hopeful in Botswana, though it wouldn’t seem so at first glance. Botswana’s economy depends to a large extent on diamond exports, a market which contracted rather severely during the Great Recession. Botswana is also severely affected by the AIDS epidemic, with 25% of its adult population living with HIV. However, Botswana’s response to this crisis has exemplified effective, responsive governance; it began in 2002 to implement a program to provide nationwide access to anti-HIV drugs, and now 95% of its people who need such treatments are receiving them.

A snapshot of Botswana’s economy depicts a nation that is playing a series of poor hands very well. The country is slightly smaller than Texas, landlocked and mostly flat. Most of the population is concentrated in the Eastern part of the country; the Kalahari Desert makes up about half of Botswana. About 45% of its land is used agriculturally, but this is almost all for pasture; the CIA World Factbook lists it as having no irrigated cropland. It imports about 95% of its electricity. Despite the fact that its current unemployment rate is 17%, Botswana is currently seeing an increasing flow of immigrants fleeing the economic malaise and unrest in neighboring Zimbabwe. Yet, despite the flatness of the diamond market and the ongoing cost of its AIDS treatment programs, Botswana roughly equals Nigeria in life expectancy, and its rates of poverty and illiteracy are far lower.