General News of Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Source: Daily Graphic

FEATURE: Achimota Forest: Major ecotourism destination

Achimota Forest, although an important national asset, has over the years been faced with serious threat as a result of encroachment and excessive degradation irrespective of its strategic location.

As a result the Forestry Commission, on behalf of the government of Ghana, signed a Lease Agreement (not a sale) with AIKAN Capital, a Ghanaian company, on February 19, 2016 to design, develop, operate and maintain the forest reserve into a world-class ecological park to be called Accra Eco Park, as an eco-tourist destination.

Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment, sustain the well-being of the local people and the culture and involve interpretation and education”.

Accordingly, eco-tourists are people who travel to areas to spend money to experience nature and the culture of the people in such a manner that supports the local livelihood and culture of the people and preserves the natural environment.

Many countries such as Kenya, Costa Rica and Namibia have used ecotourism to stimulate socio-economic development in rural communities and to safeguard their natural resources and enhance environmental sustainability. The Nairobi National Park in the city centre of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, is a good example.

Ecotourism in Ghana

In Ghana, the ecotourism sector is still rudimentary and the country is yet to witness the needed transformation that is taking place in other countries. Many success stories have, however, been made by the commission with different level of interventions within the Mole National Park, the Kakum National Park, the Ankasa Conservation Area and the Shai Hills Resource Reserve with partnerships with the Wildlife Division, the Ghana National Petroleum Commission (GNPC) and the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust (GHCT).

However, given the size of investment required and the lack of capacity on the part of the commision, the government approved a public-private partnership (PPP) approach for the Accra Eco-Park. Major among the reasons for these interventions were to safeguard the forest against encroachment, exploitation of the forest species and preservation of the fauna.

In all these initiatives, ecotourism development has enhanced the forest conservation effort in the Kakum National Park, the Mole National Park or the Shai-Hills Resource Reserve. Similarly, ecotourism initiatives by local communities have preserved the forest of Mount Afadjato, the Wechau Hippo Sanctuary, the Boabeng-Fiema and the Tafi-Atome Monkey Sanctuaries.

It has been used as a development tool to create income generation and employment opportunities for the teeming unemployed Ghanaians and at the same time safeguarded the ecological integrity of these areas. In addition, because of the tangible benefits derived by the communities, it has engendered their support for the conservation of these areas but that cannot be said of the Achimota Reserve.

Ecological integrity of Achimota Reserve

The 495 ha Achimota Forest Reserve, created in 1930 for research, recreational and environmental conservation purposes, has over the years lost more than 150ha as a result of urban infrastructure development and illegal encroachment. Its ecological integrity is further threatened with indiscriminate refuse dumping and, in recent times, dumping of dead bodies, sometimes prompting the Ghanaian public to express concern about this unfortunate situation.

In safeguarding what is left, the Commission, in 2009, consulted with key stakeholders including the Ministry for Lands and Natural Resources that welcomed the idea of turning the reserve into an eco-tourist and amusement theme park. It would serve the best interest of the public in providing recreational opportunities in the city centre, create job opportunities for the people, and serve as an avenue for revenue generation for the government in addition to safeguarding the forest.

Having secured stakeholder consent and governmental approval in September 2013 public procurement process was initiated in 2013. The process included placing adverts in the dailies, vetting and approval by a strategic procurement committee made up of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Lands and Natural Resources, procurement specialists and the Forestry Commission which culminated in the selection of Aikan Capital Ltd. Thereafter the Forestry Commission collaborated with the Public Investment Division of the Ministry of Finance and the Attorney-General’s Department to negotiate and conclude a contract with the selected development partner in a PPP agreement.

Lease agreement

With this lease agreement, the Ghanaian developer is expected to develop a world-class ecotourism infrastructure based on the concept of an Eco theme park involving the introduction of selected wildlife species and operation of wildlife safaris, an amusement park, eco-lodges, a spiritual enclave and a cultural village.

It is forecasted that the project will create over 17, 000 jobs at both the development and operational phases. It will target over 600,000 people of all the ecotourism visitors from the West African sub-region.

The government of Ghana will receive a percentage of revenues generated in addition to other revenues in the form of corporate taxes, PAYE, and social security payments, as well as indirect taxes. For the private sector, numerous business opportunities will be created thus enhancing the contribution of the forestry sector to national development.