Natural Resources: The Endangered Treasure In Africa's Backyard

Published on 1st February 2016

Our most precious resources, in our backyard, are in danger. Last autumn, UNEP named South Africa's Black Mambas anti-poaching squad as Champions of the Earth. They won this most prestigious award along with the PM of Bangladesh and the CEO of Unilever. Ms Siphiwe Sithole, one of this amazing mainly female team, has a great saying about: "Starting to protect whatever you have in your yard...then you will know how to fight for other things as well."

Africa has the best "yard" on the planet. we must do more to protect it. Nowhere on earth can touch this amazing continent for the scale and diversity of natural resources, with: 10% of the world's freshwater reserves,17% of its forests, and almost a quarter of its plant and mammal species 10% of known global oil reserves and Africa's mineral potential remains grossly under-explored. So this should be an unrivaled natural treasure chest for the people of Africa.

In these times of global economic shocks, the services sector was the most significant driver of economic growth in 30 out of 54 African countries, accounting for more than 50 per cent of real economic growth. We are also witnessing milestones on improving health across the continent, with reduced poverty, reduced child mortality and longer life expectancy. This is impressive progress. However, challenges remain that can offset the future prospects of peace, development, prosperity, and ultimately happiness and wellbeing of the African people - as well as the wealth of natural resources often taken for granted.

Our most precious resources, in our backyard, are in danger. Our forests, wildlife, fisheries, gold, oil and minerals are at risk from criminals - be they small-scale poachers, illegal loggers, members of international criminal rings, or terror groups. These resources are the very foundation of future development opportunities, whether in sustainable exploration, manufacturing, trade or protection for tourism. Should they continue to be eroded at current rates the drag on Africa's growth will be severe.

Let me give you some examples that illustrate the economic costs of illegal exploitation of Africa's resources. Through illegal fisheries, especially in West Africa, fish are caught in our oceans by foreign trawlers. This endangers coastal livelihoods and increases the risk of driving impoverished people into piracy. We should learn some lessons from developments that occurred in the Somali coast.

Transnational organized criminal groups are involved in the killing of over 20,000 elephants and over 1,000 rhinos each year, along with illegal trade in other wildlife. Well equipped and heavily armed criminal groups are roaming the continent exporting its most precious patrimony such as forest, wildlife and fisheries products, minerals and other high value natural resources. At the same time, chemicals and waste have been dumped in the continent in numerous instances.

Environmental crime in any form has become an international business, with estimated loss to developing countries of up to US$ 213 billion annually, according to Interpol. In comparison, the annual ODA output is estimated at USD 135 billion per annum, with 25 billion to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Sadly, Africa's unrivaled wealth of natural resources proportionately attracts the tentacles of many criminal networks that reach deep into the continent. These resources are the very future of the African Nations. Stealing them deprives countries of the ability to choose and determine their own future and economic development, for their own people, as part of a global world.

Unsustainable criminal practices threaten not only these resources, but peace and security, imperative to future development. "What else is more upsetting than to think that criminal groups or non-state armed groups" are using Africa's wealth as threat finance only to cause instability or to plan and execute terrorist attacks and prevent development? Unfortunately, the financial cost is just the start of the story.

The plundering of natural resources has cost the lives of 1,000 park rangers in the last decade. The great apes are already gone forever from Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo, and with another 3,000 lost every year other countries could quickly follow. The current killing rate of 1 elephant every 25 minutes means viable populations will disappear from many parts of Africa in just the next 10 years. And with the remaining 25,000 rhino being wiped out at a rate of well over 1,000 a year in Africa compared to just 20 a year a decade ago, they are rapidly heading for a similar fate.

All which is a stark reminder of why Wildlife is the fourth largest illegal trade behind drugs and the trafficking of people and arms. And why 40% of intrastate conflicts in the last 60 years were linked to natural resources. In fact, it's a cruel irony that the finance lost through the abuse of natural resources costs Africa double the amount it receives in international aid.

But it's an extra twist of the poacher's knife that as well as the suffering inflicted on the animals, illegal trade robs the most vulnerable people in Africa not once, not twice, but three times over. First, they lose access to revenue and resources, which they are legally entitled to and which they depend on to develop. Second, they lose the health care, education, jobs and infrastructure that should be funded by taxes that will never be paid by illegal traders. And third, they lose any hope of a better future for their children, not only through the destruction of their natural, cultural and economic heritage, but through increased health risks, as we've seen with the introduction of Ebola following poaching of the great apes in the Congo Basin. Yet those natural resources hold an extraordinary key to a better and more secure future for countries right across Africa.

If you look at the economic opportunities then, elephants are worth 76 times more alive than dead: poached tusks will bring in about $21,000 for the seller, while a living elephant is worth more than $1.6 million in ecotourism for the entire country. It's a similar story for the great apes. Local poachers might get around $50 and the value at the end of the supply chain can reach up to $30,000. Yet Uganda earns around $1 million per year per mountain gorilla, while Rwanda's eco-tourism industry is worth over $300 million and growing rapidly.

By Ibrahim Thiaw
UNEP Deputy Executive Director.

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