Cape Town — Until Africa's forests are valued for the oxygen they produce for the world's ecosystems, they will be worth more when they are dead than alive, said Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at a summit for "Sustainability in Africa" held in Botswana from May 24-25.
Stressing the importance of preserving Africa's "natural capital", Sirleaf said that "until we can put a value on the contribution our biodiversity makes to the global environment, we will struggle to protect it."
Natural capital includes not only resources such as minerals, but also the benefits provided by natural phenomena, often overlooked or taken for granted, such as watersheds, coral reefs, grasslands, forests, biodiversity and ecosystems.
Representatives of 10 African governments, business leaders and development partners from the continent and beyond, endorsed the "Gaberone Declaration" - a resolution calling for careful management of Africa's resources in order to ensure that growth and development are sustainable.
The declaration also committed governments to account for the value of their natural capital and to integrate it into national and corporate planning, as well as in reporting practices, policies and programmes.
Botswana's President Ian Khama emphasised the importance of broad alliances that involved the active engagement of civil society, the private sector and government.
"We need to pay more attention to getting the balance right between what is economically feasible, socially desirable and environmentally sustainable," he said.
The private sector and business partnerships need to drive the "greening" of economic growth and the diversification of African economies, said Khama. "It is this aspiration that should guide us in using our natural resources to redress current discrepancies in wealth and lift more people out of poverty."
In her speech to the summit, President Sirleaf warned that many African countries are running down their "natural capital stock" without understanding the value of what they are losing. "The degradation of soils, air, water and biological resources can negatively impact on public health, food security, consumer choice and business opportunities," she said.
She recalled the 1970s in Liberia when the price of iron ore fell from U.S. $600 to less than $100, at the same time oil went from $15 to $75 overnight. "Liberia had no choice but to dig for more iron, at the cost of abusing our environment," she said. "In the end we were left with big craters and artificial lakes on our landscape and not much else to show for the millions of tons of ore exported."
Sirleaf said the "tremendous" human and natural capital resources in Liberia and other African countries have the potential to liberate the continent from poverty, provided they are managed sustainably.
"Let us remember that the sustainable management of natural capital is not a new challenge: it is one every African village has faced since time immemorial."
But, she added, the challenge is more urgent than ever in a world whose population is now seven billion and rising, and in a continent where people are moving to the cities. "While the problems may manifest themselves at a local level, the solutions will only work if they are truly global.
"As we deliberate on nature, the ecosystem and resources, let us not overlook the issue of sustainability in urban areas," said Sirleaf, "how to make our cities more eco-friendly and nurturing rather than oppressive and hazardous...
"Until we have access to the best technologies for sustainable agriculture and renewable energy, we will continue to languish in poverty."
Noting that Botswana has made good progress towards the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, President Khama said his country had met the global targets for access to safe water, education and health services. Botswana had also designated "around 40 percent" of its land area as protected.