The World's Loneliest Trees

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Standing short and expansive with its thorny branches is the gum acacia tree, also known as gum arabic. The tree is a short distance away from the banks of Senegal River in the southern part of Mauritania. This tree is part of Mauritania’s 0.2 percent forest cover, the lowest in Africa.

Indeed, Mauritania is a lonely place for forests. There are ten times as many red Indians in the US than trees in Mauritania. To put it differently, the percentage of black US presidents is more than the percentage of Mauritania’s forest cover. Now, that’s a pretty lonely place to be, because President Barack Obama is the only black US president ever.

Mauritania’s forests don’t earn it much even though deforestation costs the country $84 million every year in lost earnings.

Back in 1998, the desert country’s forest imports were valued at $733,000, which was one third of what the country spent to import forest products worth $2,442,000. The situation is even worse now because the forest cover is less than it was back then. In 1930, Mauritania came tried to come to the rescue of lonely trees by introducing prosopis juliflora also known as mequite. These efforts were stepped up more than half a century later when 22,951 hectares of the tree were established between 1990 and 1997. Unfortunately, these efforts were not built expanded. Instead, fires, overgrazing, drought and agricultural expansion continued clearing trees.

As the lonely trees continue to fall by the wayside, bringing in bringing in less and less revenue, fish and iron are earning the country handsome amounts.

Fisheries and iron ore extraction are the country’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi – they are the top earners. Forests are definitely not playing in the big league or even in the second tier like oil, which was discovered in the advent of the new millennium. While fish and iron are playing in Mauritania’s champions league in terms of revenue generation, forests are more like beach football – refreshing and fun but with minimal revenue.

Iron ore accounts for approximately 40 percent of Mauritania’s export earnings. Unfortunately again for trees, mining iron ore contributes to deforestation. The debate between keeping trees alive and kicking or felling some of them to extract iron, is one that trees can’t win.

Luckily, trees don’t have to make way for fishery to thrive. Mauritania’s proximity to powerful coastal upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich waters has greatly boosted its fishery sector. Such waters are fertile fishing ground. With the exception of Morocco, Mauritania leads Arab countries in export of small fish to Europe.

However, government-provided fishery subsidies to overseas vessels have often threatened to fish stock sustainability. In 2006, Mauritania entered a fisheries partnership agreement with the European Union. It was worth approximately €108 million annually for 6 years and has since expired. A recent fourth round of talks in Brussels failed to yield fruit concerning renewal of the agreement, leading to suspension of talks. Critics are opposed to the previous agreement which allowed 200 EU vessels to fish in Mauritania’s water.

Jamila is a young lady who lives with her parents and five siblings in the beach town of Jreida. Her father is one of Mauritania’s approximately ten thousand artisanal fishermen. The government wants people like him to get more jobs from any new partnership with EU.

In this regard, fishery provides well paying jobs as well as direct revenue for the government. The same cannot be said of forests. EU has a forest cover of 31 percent, a far cry from Mauritania’s 0.2 percent. In this equation, it is easy for trees to be relegated to near irrelevance, as they are seemingly unimportant to the country’s strategic interests.

That should however not be the case because an exponentially expanding forest cover would turn the tide of desertification, consequently opening up more land for agro-forestry which would in turn improve food security and open up diverse green economy opportunities. In addition, other invaluable ecosystem services would be revived, proving the adage that trees are a lot more valuable alive than dead.

The gum acacia tree together with other trees in Mauritania shouldn’t be lonely. After all, they are in the company of 1,100 plant species and 61 mammal species. However, the death knell of extinction has already sounded for big mammals like elephants. Before 1940, at least 400 elephants used to roam the wild. But today, the gentle giants are nowhere to be seen. Similarly, the long-horned, brown-white Sahara Oryx has become extinct in the world.

Gànnaar, as Mauritania is known in wolof, doesn’t have to remain a predominantly desert country forever. Even more important, human slaves who still toil in Mauritania should not have to put up with such inhuman existence.

In February this year, Gulnara Shahinian, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery stressed that, ‘the Government still has to turn its pledges into deeds, and to take more vigorous measures with a view to eliminating slavery and to fully implement the laws and policies.’

Mauritania must heed these words because the scourge of slavery runs much deeper than the entire Sahara desert.

In the meantime, the lonely trees need some company. It’s time for Mauritania to plant a billion trees.

 

President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, both history and your country are waiting for you to become the billion tree president.

Environmental Africa

Environmental Africa uses creative writing to share Africa's Sustainability Promise and Plight

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