Prof Alfred Oteng-Yeboah writes: Ghana must Protect, Promote and Respect its Natural Areas
This year’s International Day for Biological Diversity theme ‘Our solutions are in nature’ refers to the fact that problems that generate interest to humankind have solutions in nature. This literally means that nature, which includes both animate and inanimate structures which interact to heal itself, has solutions to all the myriad of environmental, social and economic challenges that are facing mankind. It is like the Biblical text in Proverbs 6: 6-11 which, to wit enjoins one who needs knowledge to go to the ant to study its ways and be wise,
The COVID-19 Pandemic
The theme is quite appropriate to be considered at this period of the global pandemic of COVID-19 whose source is yet to be unraveled but has had suggestions ranging from visits to wet markets where live animals are displayed for sale, for consumption or kept as pets, on one hand and to another in reference to a lab test on the coronavirus that went awry in the Chinese City of Wuhan and started to infect people.
Whatever the source which the global community may or may never know, the one thing that is clear and not in doubt is that a novel virus has been let loose and has become uncontrollable. I have decided to refer to a sub-theme ‘Ghana must protect, promote and respect its wilderness areas’ in an effort to bring attention to the various nature or wilderness areas from where the solutions are waiting to be picked and used.
What is nature?
When we talk of nature, we are talking about biodiversity. Nature as biodiversity comprises all the natural or wilderness areas, the components of living organisms in them, the interactions they have with themselves and the surrounding environment, and finally the genetic identities that are unique to each individual member.
Areas of the natural environment are diverse and include grasslands, forests, mountains and rivers, coastal areas and the oceans, some of which have been set aside for conservation purposes. Each natural ecosystem is endowed with peculiar species of animals, plants and microbes that freely interact with each other and their surrounding physical environment.
For example Grasslands in Ghana are of various types including the coastal, Guinea and Sudan savannas; Forests in Ghana are of various kinds including the wet evergreen, dry deciduous and semi-deciduous, upland evergreen as found in Atewa mountains, riparian woodlands and coastal dry forests; Mountains or hills whose peaks range up to 700 meters with rocky surfaces and some form of vegetation which is basically tropical as found at Afadjato; Rivers of various lengths and breadths, draining different kinds of valleys with different soil types, whose waters may run swiftly or slowly, carrying various forms of sediment loads and hosting various kinds of fresh water organisms; Coastal areas in Ghana are of various kinds which may be seashores, with or without rocks and sometimes estuarine areas including lagoons, mudflats and with various kinds of vegetation such as mangroves, strand, wetlands, lagoons.
These coastal areas limit the oceans whose areas have the benthic and the pelagic provinces. The benthic which is the bottom habitats located below varied columns of water of different heights ranges from littoral, sub-littoral, bathyal, abyssal and hadal. The pelagic ranges from epipelagic, mesopelagic, bachpelagic, abyssalpelagic and hadalpelagic.
Light penetration is only to 100 meters deep and it is in this column that demersal organisms and the colony of planktons, phytoplanktons and zooplanktons occupying the upper 1 – 5 meters of the ocean surface exist. Pelagic fish are common at this zone while demersal fish are on or near the benthos.
Some verifiable solutions from nature
All the different ecosystem types support a huge biological diversity of living things that humans depend on. This diversity means nature can take care of the many difficulties faced by humankind. There is evidence of nature taking care of such events as disease outbreaks before they become Pandemics. Some of the situations in which nature has provided solutions are detailed below.
- Nature ensures that wild animals have all they need in their habitats and so, to avoid Pandemics, we have to avoid getting close to wild animals and not encroach on or destroy their habitats.
- Evidence of mangrove vegetation acting as a barrier to protect communities from surging tsunami waves in South East Asia tells us to leave mangrove trees and only use them on sustainable basis.
- Green plants pick up carbon dioxide and release oxygen, ensuring all living things enjoy clean air. So nature teaches us to leave vegetation to clean the air and provide copious amounts of oxygen, and for the natural fragrance of flowers to reduce bad smells.
- Some plants such as certain fern species absorb heavy metals from polluted soils, and so the lesson from nature is to plant these to clear the toxic and dangerous chemicals in mined soils.
- Some water plants are able to exist in polluted water bodies and to filter and absorb the pollutants, while others help prevent eutrophication.
- Nature teaches us that when a slope area is covered in vegetation, mud slides are prevented by the interlocking nature of the roots that stop soils loosening and sliding down the slopes.
- Nature teaches us that the strength of storms is broken by vegetation: tree canopies and undergrowth plants intercept the strong forces of nature, reducing their power and the damage they cause to the environment, human life and livelihoods.
- Nature tells us that wetlands are reservoirs that act as sponges to absorb excess flood water and release it gradually as needed, and should therefore not be drained or turned into another land use.
- Nature teaches us that lands destroyed by desertification can spring back when planted with cover crops and other vegetation; this is a lesson on smart agriculture to overcome climate change impacts on food production.
- In fire-prone areas, nature has certain plants that are fire resistant and will regenerate; such plants that had been dormant now become vibrant by sprouting new shoots, flushing new leaves and flowers, and dispersing fruits and seeds to continue their life cycle and provide ecosystem services.
- Nature is providing an answer to plastics that are now the biggest pollutants on land and seas. New research discovered a natural material with tensile strength, viscosity, translucency and malleability equal to or exceeding that of plastic. This material is silk produced by the spider Argiope trifuscata.
- Many drug discoveries have come from plants, and there are many more waiting to be found in wilderness areas. Some discoveries have come from observing how animals keep healthy by eating and using certain herbs, such as how they treat themselves when bitten by snakes. New remedies are also discovered by chance: the sudden importance of Akyeampong weed for healing wounds came from its association with other native plant remedies, and the establishment of the Centre for Plant Medicine Research at Akuapem Mampong resulted from Dr Oku Ampofo’s observation of the efficacy of traditional herbal concoctions that local people used to treat their illnesses.
When one considers the range of contributions and the many others not captured here that nature provides for human well-being, one would have to feel blessed to have such resources in wilderness areas in one’s own territory or country. This is what has been bequeathed to Ghanaians and which must be cherished as a museum, a library, a learning place, a storehouse, a resource, a place for succor, and a place for spiritual and cultural upliftment.
The challenge to Ghana
It has been established (IPBES 2019) that rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining, and urban infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species, have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people, now sadly evidenced in the current COVID-19 pandemic. It has also been established in the IPBES (2019) study that human actions have significantly impacted more than three-quarters of the Earth’s land surface, destroyed more than 85% of wetlands and dedicated more than a third of all land and almost 75% of available freshwater to crops and livestock production.
It is obvious that there are lessons to take on board. Ghana should learn fast from other nations that are respecting their natural and wilderness areas. Such areas that have an international stamp on them and recognized as Globally Significant Biodiversity Areas (GSBA) or Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) should be left alone to continue their ecosystem development and create the conditions for sustained ecosystem services that support human life. The Atewa Range Forest Reserve is in this category and must be promoted, protected and respected for the benefit of present and future generations.
By Prof Alfred Oteng-Yeboah, Department of Plant and Environmental Biology, University of Ghana, LEGON.