It is a holiday in Ghana and tourism enthusiasts are embarking on an excursion to one of Ghana’s rich forest heritages, Atewa Range Forest Reserve in the Eastern region. This is a forest that has been described as having great wealth because of its distinct features. It boasts significant diversity, with at least 1100 plant species and butterflies not seen on any site in West Africa.
Ghana’s tourism sector contributes immensely to the country’s GDP and creates thousands of job opportunities for young men and women. Interestingly, natural forest conservation is dotted from the northern to the southern part of Ghana, and they contribute to the country’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 1 and 8, which aim to reduce poverty and promote decent work and economic growth.
However, Ghana’s ecotourism sector and local livelihoods were hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses came to a standstill and services were suspended. Protected areas and mass tourism facilities were badly affected. For example, tourism locations such as the Kakum National Park, Mole National Park, Ankasa Conversation Area, and Bobiri Butterfly Sanctuary, where thousands of tourists visit annually, came to a halt for more than six months, leading to joblessness and redundancies.
Recounting the negative impacts of COVID-19 on ecotourism, the Deputy National Director of an environmental non-governmental organisation, A Rocha Ghana, Mr Darly Bosu, confirmed that some employees were sent home as a result of the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, recovery centres in Ghana came to a halt, which meant that all the revenue that was supposed to be generated by these protected areas and ploughed back into their management and operations was not forthcoming anymore. Again, the people who were employed in the tourism industry, the majority of whom were women, were laid off,” he said.
Covid-19 grounded tourism to a halt, leading to increased poverty in households and the vulnerability of women.
The sad thing was that stimulus packages given to businesses to absorb some of the shocks of the pandemic and help them recover did not consider the tourism sector at a time when such stimulus was badly needed. The little that came the way of tourism came way after the peak of the pandemic. So, we were home with no support mechanism, and that also affected environmental protection”.
Mr Bosu revealed that illegal activities surged in unprotected areas due to the absence of forest guards, who were asked to stay home for fear that they would spread the virus.
“Most of our forest areas, national parks, and forest reserves were left without protection.” Illegal activities soared and we saw illegal mining, also locally known as galamsey, increase within a short period in the forest reserves.
“We also saw logging activity go on in the northern part of Ghana, depleting the fragile savannah ecosystems because the officers who were supposed to be at the post were asked to stay home,” he said.
According to research conducted by a conservation expert, Dr Anna Spenceley, on COVID-19 and protected area tourism: a spotlight on impacts and options in Africa, nearly 14,000 local employees working for tourism operators will be adversely and directly affected, as well as their dependents, if the crisis continues. Respondents’ purchases of local produce, hospitality services, and payments to community initiatives are expected to be $78.9 million lower than the previous fiscal year (a 45 percent decrease).
The study also confirmed a surge in environmental crimes at unprotected tourist spots. Environmental crime is one of the immediate concerns of most operators (78 percent), and a majority predict that levels will increase due to the pandemic (86 percent). Compounding this is a likely reduction in operator expenditure on local environmental services by $20.7M due to lower tourism turnover.
Despite efforts made by city authorities to clamp down on illegal mining, Ghana continues to battle the unlawful activity that is adversely affecting the environment, agriculture, climate change and endangering the existence of wildlife.
The African Green Stimulus Programme suggests that to revitalize eco-tourism and biodiversity, stakeholders must mobile resources to support the recovery of the industry through additional conversation finance, including sustainable revenue diversification such as Conversation Trust Funds, Debt for Nature or Climate Swaps, and Payments for Ecosystem Services. Yet, in Ghana, the stimulus packages for industry players are meagre and not forthcoming.
Also, the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) ecotourism: principles, practices, and policies for sustainability clearly outline adequate budgets to conserve popular tourist areas and earmark tourism fees for conservation. The Eco-destination Management Guidelines further advocate appropriate interventions for employees, and A Rocha Ghana joins in the clarion call.
The NGO has urged policymakers and stakeholders to invest in post-COVID recovery interventions and readily commit to invigorating the ecosystem by increasing stimulus packages to protect employees, especially women and communities within Ghana’s eco-tourism value chain.
The stimulus packages will positively contribute to reviving ecotourism and averting recession by boosting employment. These packages will also motivate industry players to step up efforts to safeguard the environment from pollution.
In a famous quote by the late Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Laureate, Wangari Maathai, on environmental protection, she said, “You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own and that they must protect them.”
Additionally, at the 5th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly on the theme, “Strengthen actions for nature to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” the assembly concluded with 14 resolutions aimed at curbing pollution, and protecting and restoring nature worldwide.
Part of the resolutions, in the spirit of the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restorations, a third resolution agreed by the Assembly focused on nature-based solutions, actions to protect and restore sustainable use and manage ecosystems. At the 5th UNEA meeting, Inger Anderson, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, said it is critical to have a universally agreed definition of nature-based solutions.
When countries and companies claim that their actions are supporting nature-based solutions, we can now begin to assess whether this is accurate and what it entails. This is especially true given the just-released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the need to scale-up adaptation, for which nature-based solutions will be crucial.
Equally, Dr Anna Spenceley, in her research, outlined major solution strategies to the crisis facing tourism, their conversation economies, and local beneficiaries.
“I would like to see clear qualification criteria for financial assistance and rescue that serve to motivate all businesses involved in tourism to remote areas to make the change so that economic recovery after the pandemic is not a recovery to the same old, but instead a recovery to a better, more sustainable tourism that fully supports wildlife conservation efforts and the development aspirations of their local communities, leading poor people out of the poverty trap and a life that depends on natural resource exploitation to skilled employment, entrepreneurship, and empowerment,” she said.
Without strategic financial intervention in this crisis, I fear that many small eco-lodges and concerns that are critical to their communities will flounder and all these advances will be reversed. The environmental damage may be irreversible. Tourism in the next decade will be dominated almost exclusively by price considerations and again become more of a force of destruction than a source of hope.
Adequate stimulus packages for individuals in the eco-tourism value chain are a great support mechanism to alleviate and revitalize the sector while empowering women working in it.
This article is part of the African Women in Media (AWiM)/UNEP Africa Environment Programme.