Ghana: Can the government be trusted to protect Accra’s forest from private development?

By Jonas Nyabor
Posted on Wednesday, 10 August 2022 12:16

Achiota forest (twitter: @Afr100_Official)

Ghana's commitment to protecting the capital's only urban forest is under fresh scrutiny after a dead forestry official's leaked will revealed that he had acquired whole acres of it for himself.

Accra’s Achimota forest is a shrinking oasis of greenery in the heart of the city of more than 2 million people.

For months, the government of President Nana Akufo-Addo has vowed to protect the forest from private development and encroachers following reports that it had removed the forest reserve designation from some of the lands. Skeptical Ghanaians see this as a ploy to sell parts of it to connected elites.

This May, opposition officials and environmental groups slammed a government order ceding 146 hectares (361 acres) of the forest to its custodial owners, the Owoo family, from whom the entire forest lands were acquired in the 1920s.

“We believe that it was not well thought through if indeed [the] intention was not deliberate to loot the Achimota Forest land,” said the ranking member of the Lands and Natural Resources Committee of Parliament, Alhassan Suhuyini. “The president must take a second look at the [decision] and possibly revoke it as soon as possible.”

When the Achimota forest reserve was officially announced in 1930, it covered 494 hectares (1,221 acres). Since then, however, it has shrunk to about 360 hectares (890 acres).

No development can take place without the express approval of the Minister for Lands and Natural Resources, taking into consideration the ecological integrity of the forest.

Portions of the reserve have given way for the construction of the George Walker Bush highway and the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration. But a large swath of what’s lost has been taken over by real estate developers and encroachers.

Lands and Natural Resources Minister Samuel Abu Jinapor told reporters that the lands being released to the custodial owners were on the periphery. He said they had already been degraded and were under constant threat of encroachment.

He promised the government would keep the core of the forest intact, restricting human activity.

“No development can take place without the express approval of the Minister for Lands and Natural Resources, taking into consideration the ecological integrity of the forest,” he said.

Political fallout

The government’s integrity has come under question however after the will of one of its top officials was leaked later that month. Kwadwo Owusu Afriyie had been the chief executive of the Forestry Commission until his death in 2020.

Most of the forest lands listed in the will had been registered in the name of private companies owned by the deceased chief executive.

According to the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), the leaked document buttresses its claim that the government of President Akufo-Addo and Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia intends to carve up the forest for private use by its officials.

“Portions of the last will of the late Kwadwo Owusu Afriyie (A.K.A Sir John) shows that officials of the corrupt Akufo-Addo/Bawumia government have already stolen and shared the Achimota Forest lands for themselves,” the NDC’s Communications Officer, Sammy Gyamfi, wrote in a Facebook post.

The government, for its part, says it is investigating the case.

Ecotourism park

In 2016, the government of Akufo-Addo’s predecessor John Mahama signed a 10-year lease agreement with Ghanaian company Aikan Capital to design and construct a $1.2bn ecotourism park in the forest reserve to boost tourism, increase foreign income and keep encroachers at bay.

Because what they are asking for is an eco-tourism park which will be like a theme park and for me, personally, I am yet to be convinced…It has the potential of compromising the flora and fauna of the forest.

With a change of government a few months later and a series of legal challenges, the agreement was shelved.

The Akufo-Addo government has now decided it will not push forward the deal.

In a Metro TV interview, Lands Minister Abu Jinapor said the Aikan Capital proposal was “not something that I have been persuaded about yet, so we are not moving forward with it.”

“Because what they are asking for is an eco-tourism park which will be like a theme park and for me, personally, I am yet to be convinced,” he said. “It has the potential of compromising the flora and fauna of the forest.”

The government may be forced to continue to cede portions of the forest to different groups if it does not reverse the recent decision, says Daryl Bosu of the consultancy A Rocha Ghana.

“The government must put in the effort to restore the forest rather than releasing encroached portions to the Owoo family,” Bosu tells The Africa Report. “If this decision is not rescinded, the floodgate will be opened for others to petition government for the release of lands acquired by the state to them.”

Arocha is one of 14 civil society organisations that have petitioned the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice to make a definite pronouncement on the propriety of the government’s decision.

“Ghana’s Forest Reserves should be protected in perpetuity for the purposes for which they were gazetted. Loss of any amount of Forest Reserve or other protected area, no matter how small, should never be allowed,” the petition states.

As they await the commission’s verdict, civil society is leading the campaign against any form of private development in the forest reserve. They believe such developments would be sanctioned by government if they stay silent.

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