The Comoros face grave environmental problems which threaten biodiversity and pose serious risks for the Comorian people whose livelihoods depend for the large part on natural resources and ecosystem services.
The drivers of forest loss in the Comoros
During the colonial period, most of the accessible fertile land was part of colonial domains which produced cash crops such as ylang-ylang and vanilla for export. The rural population, especially poorer people, were forced to grow their staple crops on less fertile land on the steeper slopes and further up the mountain. It was illegal to clear the forest, so farmers developed a form of agro-forestry which involved planting bananas and taro under the forest canopy using long-term rotation systems. These traditional systems of production under forest cover had a relatively small impact on the forest due to their low density and the protection that the colonial regimes exerted on the forest, including severe penalties for wood-cutting.
After independence in 1975, the colonial land was re-instated to the Comorian people, but richer people bought up the more fertile fields lower down the slopes. Rapid population increase put an increasing pressure on agricultural land, with the poorer villagers limited to creating new fields further up the slopes. With more mouths to feed, the traditional rotations become shorter, giving the forest undergrowth less time to regenerate after cultivation. Continuing poverty means that when a family needs some cash (to build a house, send a child to school, or fund a wedding for example) they cut trees from their forest land to sell, or use for building.
Exacerbating this process, the traditional methods used to grow crops do not protect the soil and its fertility once the forest has been cleared, allowing erosion from rain and wind. After a few years of cultivation, fields become less and less fertile, producing very low yields, and can eventually become padza: eroded and unusable land where very little will grow. All this means a farmer is forced to find more land to continue to produce crops, and this is often at the expense of the forest.
The lack of forest protection measures meant that deforestation increased apace, reaching the fourth highest rate in the world in the 1990s according to FAO statistics. Today natural forest generally only remains on the most inaccessible slopes, but even there, the best trees are still extracted for timber.
Most of the terrestrial biodiversity endemic to the Comoros is part of forest ecosystems, and forest loss poses the main threat to many endangered species. Marine biodiversity is also affected as soil erosion leads to the silting of coral reefs.
Forest loss and environmental degradation also poses grave threats to the Comorian population and their livelihoods. The forest provides vital ecosystem services and natural resources including:
- Climate: the forests are at the mountain top, so act as cloud forests, playing a big role in the islands’ rainfall patterns
- Fresh water supplies: rain that falls on the forest does not run off immediately, but trickles slowly through the undergrowth and humus layer, giving it time to replenish groundwater supplies. Over the last half a century, it is thought that the number of permanent rivers on Anjouan has reduced from over fifty to less than ten today. This has obvious implications for the populations dependent on these sources.
- Protection from floods and landslides: without forest cover, the heavy monsoon rains run straight off the steep hillsides and can cause a lot of damage to fields, villages and infrastructure
- Protection of coral reefs: fish is a major protein source for the Comorian population, and fishing is an important livelihood. Coral reefs act as nursery grounds for many species of fish, so are essential for maintaining fish stocks. Without protection from forest, soil erodes from the slopes and ends up silting up the surrounding coral reefs.
- Timber: wood is used for construction and furniture
- Traditional remedies: many forest species are used in traditional medicine
Older villagers in Anjouan recount the many changes they have seen over the course of their lives, from when they were little and the forest was a short walk from the village, to changes in climate – less rain and hotter temperatures – to reductions in water flows.
The loss of these ecosystem services and environmental degradation makes these small islands more vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change. A climate change ‘risk atlas’ produced by risk-management consultants Maplecroft named the Comoros as the country the least-prepared to cope with the impacts of climate change.