Environment ministers from across Africa gathered in Johannesburg today were presented with a new atlas that uses hundreds of satellite images and maps to show how the continent has changed over the past 35 years. Some changes are viewed as negative - glaciers melting, cities and suburbs replacing forests, wild animals disappearing into cooking pots - but others are seen as positive - forests and rare species recovering due to better management practices.
Launched by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is hosting the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, the atlas features over 300 satellite images taken in every country in Africa in over 100 locations. It was compiled by the UN Environment Programme, UNEP, based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Yet, there are critical environmental problems, and the atlas describes them. In the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1975, widening corridors of deforestation have accompanied expanding roads. New roads threaten to increase traffic into this biologically rich rainforest and further fuel the commercial trade in wild animals for meat, known as bushmeat.
In South Africa, at the northern edge of Cape Town, much of the native fynbos vegetation has been replaced by farms and suburban development since 1978.
Fynbos make up 80 percent of the plant varieties in the Cape Floristic Region. The diversity of fynbos plants is greater than that of the tropical rainforests, with over 9,000 species of plants occurring in the area, around 6,200 of which occur nowhere else.
Satellite images in the Atlas show the loss of trees and shrubs in the fragile environment of the Jebel Marra foothills in western Sudan. These plants are disappearing as a result of population growth partly due to an influx of refugees fleeing drought and conflict in neighboring Northern Darfur.
Positive signs of protective management also can be seen in the satellite images. New policies and improved enforcement have reduced unsustainable exploitation of the forests of Mount Kenya, which is a crucial area for water catchment and hydro-power generation.
Farmer initiatives focusing on the planting and protection of trees have led to land revitalization in Tahoua Province, Niger. A recent study shows there are now 10 to 20 times more trees across three of Niger's southern provinces than there were in the 1970s.
Main Findings and Key Concerns
Africa is losing more than four million hectares of forest every year - twice the world's average deforestation rate, the atlas shows.Of the 10 countries in the world with the largest annual net loss of forested area, six are in Africa. Africa loses an average of 40,000 km2, or 0.6 percent, of its forests annually, with the greatest losses occurring in heavily forested countries.
Logging, land conversion to agriculture and settlements, wildfi res, cutting for fi rewood and charcoal, and civil unrest are the primary causes of deforestation in Africa; many of these pressures are driven by population growth.Although Africa produces only four percent of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions, its inhabitants are likely to suffer more from the consequences of global climate change than people in other parts of the world.
All the materials in the Atlas are non-copyrighted and available for free use. Individual satellite images, maps, graphs and photographs can be downloaded from http://na.unep.net/AfricaAtlas