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Environmentalism a foreign concept in Africa

KUMASI, GhanaJohn Kufuor, the president of Ghana, is in an enviable position.Named chair of the African Union in January, he leads the only…


John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, is in an enviable position.

Named chair of the African Union in January, he leads the only government in volatile West Africa to win office through a peaceful, democratic transfer of power that has, so far, not disintegrated into anarchy and civil war, making it the model of political stability in the region.

Kufuor presided over the landmark 50th anniversary of Ghana’s status as the first sub-Saharan nation to claim independence from colonial rule on March 6.

Then he flew to London for a state visit with Queen Elizabeth II, making him the first Ghanaian president to win such an honour from Ghana’s former colonial masters.

He’s a popular guy, at home and abroad. But honouring Kufuor — and by extension, Ghana — for its environmental record crosses the boundary of kudos into the realm of the absurd.

The International Jury of the Climate Change Award Foundation — a commission of the European Union — announced recently that Ghana won this year’s prize for exemplary “forest law enforcement, governance and trade,” according to a release from the Ghanaian embassy in Brussels.

“The award carries a cash prize of one million Euros and is in recognition of Ghana’s efforts at sustainable development, forest conservation, reforestation and eco-tourism,” reported the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s longest-established daily newspaper.

In Africa, such an environmental award is a joke, or at best an ‘A’ for effort given to the least dull student because someone had to get it — meant to encourage, not to mark excellence.

To be fair, there are pockets of people and places in Ghana where the principles of conservation and environmentalism are observed.

But they are overshadowed by the prevailing ethos of world-as-my-garbage-can that cripples any attempt to address Ghana’s environmental woes, which are considerable if not epidemic.

Leave aside the fact that everyone litters everything everywhere all the time; it is automatic.

Never mind that recycling of any kind is an alien concept.

All things environmental are interconnected, so focus on fighting industrial climate change, since that’s why Ghana has recently been recognized.

Drought, a symptom of climate change, touches the lives of Ghanaians very distinctly because the lights go off.

The country is powered by hydroelectricity. The Akosombo dam in Ghana’s southeast corner has a long and colourfully complicated history that is a worthy topic for another column.

Suffice to say that when water levels in Lake Volta are low, the state-owned dam does not produce enough electricity to satisfy all its commercial obligations.

Rolling blackouts across the country used to be a weekly occurrence, but the government recently announced that blackouts would increase in frequency to every two days, for 12 hours, because levels in Lake Volta are so low, even though the rainy season has begun.

Ghanaians respond to blackouts the way Yukoners do — with diesel generators, which dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and perpetuate the problem.

The difference is that generators in Ghana are mostly privately owned by residences and businesses. Beyond flicking the switch to ‘off’ the government does not get involved.

Instead, the government tells its citizens, through the media, to conserve electricity by buying low-wattage light bulbs.

“The golden rule is to switch off when you don’t need light,” Alfred Ofosu Ahenkora, the acting executive secretary of Ghana’s energy commission, told the Daily Graphic.

This from a government praised for its climate change innovation.

Industrial climate change is hardly Ghana’s fault. Although its streets and highways are clogged with cars and Ghanaians scoff at Canadians, with their peculiar preference of walking from place to place, Ghana doesn’t even rank as a significant greenhouse gas contributor, according to the United Nations Environmental Program website.

Yet, as everyone is learning, the problem of climate change is ubiquitous regardless of who’s at fault.

Africa has enough problems: overpopulation, AIDS, famine, corruption — the list seems endless at times.

Environmental degradation understandably takes a back seat. Concern for the health of the planet is considered a luxury for another day, or perhaps another government.

Nevertheless, it may be a good idea to offer an environmental award to the brightest student in the slow kids’ class. The European Union certainly seems to think so.

But when Kufuor officially receives the award — strangely, it’s up to him to say when and where he will accept it — he’d best wear a wry smile that knows the price of popularity.