In June, the study by a team of researchers published in the journal, Nature Plants highlighted the gradual disappearance for a decade of the vast majority of the oldest baobabs in Africa*. Eight of the thirteen older of them partially or died completely in the past 12 years. This is a spectacular but disturbing phenomenon when we know that baobabs are trees that can live for thousands of years.
Africa is the continent with the most baobabs in the world, with a particular concentration in Madagascar. On the ‘red island,’ there are no less than six species of the nine existing baobabs identified. The best known is the Adansonia digitata, or African baobab, found in many countries of the continent.
If the gradual disappearance of baobabs does not leave me indifferent, it is because they occupy a special place in African societies. ‘The tree of life’ is sacred to many of our cultures. In West Africa, the baobab is often called the ‘palaver tree’ because of its social function. In many African villages, being under the baobab means gathering and exchanging to solve problems the community might be facing.
The baobab also has a central place in African flora. It has many virtues and uses: It provides nourishment, shelter, materials for construction, has healing properties, et cetera. The baobab even serves as a water tank in some cases. In the arid regions of Madagascar where the Mahafaly people live, the inhabitants dig the trunks of the baobabs to form rainwater reservoirs. Thanks to this know-how, which is transmitted from generation to generation, a baobab-tank can hold up to 9,000l of water, enough to cover the water needs of a family for four to five months.
Sadly, according to the researchers, baobabs are disappearing in Africa, largely because of climate change. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that it is in southern Africa, a region particularly affected by climate change, where the disappearances of the savanna giants have been noted the most.
The death of baobabs speaks volumes about the more global challenges facing Africa. While Africa is the continent that produces the least greenhouse gases, it is also the continent that bears the brunt of climate change. In a context where multilateralism is being undermined by national selfishness, African states must succeed in mobilising other countries of the world for better global governance in the preservation of the environment, as well as improved management of global public goods.
Some African legends say that God gave this strange form to the baobab in order to connect the sky to the earth, thus becoming ‘the roots of heaven.’ It is therefore up to us to make sure that our baobabs remain firmly rooted in African soil, as are our traditions and our culture.
* Nature Plant, “The demise of the largest and oldest African baobabs,” VOL 4, July 2018