Except for the Congo Basin,
Africa's frontier forests have largely been destroyed,
primarily by loggers and by farmers clearing land for
agriculture. In West Africa, nearly 90 percent of the original
moist forest is gone, and what remains is heavily fragmented
and degraded. Today, West African unspoiled forests are
restricted to one patch in Côte d'Ivoire and another along the
border between Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon
The forests of Africa cover 520 million hectares and
constitute more than 17 per cent of the world's forests. They
are largely concentrated in the tropical zones of Western and
Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. With more than 109
million hectares of forests, Congo Kinshasa alone has more
than 20 per cent of the region's forest cover, while Northern
little more than 9%, principally along the coast of
the western Mediterranean countries, according to FAO. This still, however, makes Africa on of the continents with the
lowest forest cover rate.
African forests include dry tropical
forests in the Sahel, Eastern and Southern Africa,
humid tropical forests in Western and Central Africa
montane forests, diverse sub-tropical forest and
woodland formations in Northern Africa and the
southern tip of the continent, as well as mangroves
in the coastal zones.
Some basic facts about deforestation in Africa:
• Almost 6.8 million square kilometers of Africa
were originally forested.
• Over 90% of West Africa's original forest has been
lost; only a small part of what remains qualifies as
• Within the Congo Basin, between 1980
Deforestation of African rain forest© FAO
and 1995, an area about the size of Jamaica was
cleared each year (1.1 million ha).
• During 1990-95 the annual rate of total deforestation
in Africa was about 0.7 per cent.
• In Africa, for every 28 trees cut down, only one tree
• Large blocks of intact natural forest only remain in
Central Africa, particularly in Congo Kinshasa, Gabon,
and Congo Brazzaville.
• Since 1957, two thirds of Gabon’s forests have been
logged, are currently being logged, or were slated for
logging as logging concessions in 1997.
Over the last 20 years, about 300 million hectares (six
times the size of France) of mainly tropical forest have
been converted to other land uses on a world-wide basis,
such as farms and pasture or large-scale plantations of
oil palm, rubber and other cash crops. Increasingly
fragmented forests have become much more susceptible to
fire than was ever thought possible: tens of millions of
hectares of normally fire-resistant forest have been
destroyed by catastrophic infernos in the Amazon,
Central America, Indonesia, West Africa and Madagascar.
To the east, very little remains of Madagascar's once
magnificent tropical forests. Long isolated from
mainland ecosystems, these forests are home to an
exceptional number of plants and animals found nowhere
else. Unfortunately, none of Madagascar's forest
fragments is large or natural enough to qualify as a
frontier forest today.
Large blocks of intact natural
forest do remain in Central Africa, particularly in
Congo Kinshasa, Gabon, and Congo Brazzaville. In Congo
Kinshasa, which contains more than half this region's
forest cover many forests remain intact, in part because
the nation's poor transportation system can't easily
handle timber and mineral exploitation. Some areas have
fewer passable roads today than in 1960, the year the
country became independent, and some frontiers have lost
population during this period.
Today, most of
Africa's remaining frontier forests are at risk. The two
major threats are logging and commercial hunting to meet
growing urban demand for bushmeat. (Overhunting removes
populations of key species that help maintain natural
forest ecosystems). In Central Africa, over 90 percent
of all logging occurs in primary forest one of the
highest ratios of any region in the world. In some
areas, logging itself causes relatively little damage
because only a few high-value tree species are removed.
Still, logging roads open up a forest to hunters,
would-be farmers and other profit-seekers. One region
warranting special concern is eastern Congo Kinshasa:
Civil unrest in Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, and Congo
Kinshasa has driven hundreds of thousands of people into
this area, where they escalate demands on the forest.
Tropical forest ecology
Tropical forests are the world's ecosystems and
reservoirs of biodiversity. In unspoiled tropical
forests, the forest floor is fairly open with a layer of
decomposing leaves and rotting branches covering mineral
soils. Wherever a large tree has fallen, lianas, vines
and young trees crowd together in dense tangles. In rain
forests, the intense precipitation washes away minerals
and nutrients quickly, making anything bout the cover of
decomposing leaves and branches poor on nutrition.
Plants thus must act quickly to recycle these nutrients
bound in dying plants.
This is exactly what makes rainforests fragile
ecosystems. If the vegetation cover is removed, the area
is exposed to erosion and the washing out of minerals
and nutrients, leaving a poor soil. Agriculturalists
might burn the vegetation to bind the nutrition into the
ground for some seasons, obtaining good yields, but
after few years, nutrients have been washed out and the
soil has become poor. This degradation also makes it a
timely process for a rich tropical forest to reestablish
itself. Forest regrowth might be relatively quick, but
biological production and biodiversity might take
hundreds of years to reestablish.
The history of the African rainforests underlines this
even more. Under the last ice age (until 10.000 years
ago), climate in Africa was colder and dryer. Forests
were fewer and smaller, and most forests were of a
tropical montane type (with a significantly lesser
biodiversity). At the height of glaciations, rain
forests were probably restricted to three main refuge
areas, one in the north-eastern Congo basin, a second in
Gabon, southern Cameroon and Bioko and a third in
Liberia and Sierra Leone. From these core areas, the
rainforests were allowed to spread as climate became
more like today's some 10.000 years ago. There is,
however, still a notable difference in biodiversity
between these core areas and those colonized by the rain
forest during the next thousands of years. Rainforests
of eastern Congo and the area of
Gabon-Cameroon-Equatorial Guinea are by far the
biologically most rich areas of Africa.
The rain forest flora, with its
immense wealth of species belonging to thousands of
genera and scores of families, is acting as a reservoir
of genetic diversity and potential variability. For a
large part of planet earth's history, it has acted as a
centre of evolutionary activity from which the rest of
the world's flora and fauna has been recruited. Less
heterogeneous than the savanna and grassland
environments, each little area of the rainforest has its
multitude of endemic species.
The forest resource
Forests play an important economic role in many African
countries. Forest products provide 6 per cent of GDP in
Africa at large, the highest in the world. But the share
of forest products in trade is only 2 per cent. This
picture is however different on a country level. In
Cameroon, for example, timber generates more than a
quarter of the country’s non-petroleum export revenues,
along with some US$ 60 million in taxes. In 1996,
logging enterprises directly employed more than 34.000
people in Cameroon. According to one government estimate,
55.000 people currently work in the logging sector, when
indirect employment is factored in.
Forests provide a range
of ecological, economic, and social services to humans, including
protection of water and soil resources. Forests also act as
store-houses of carbon, much of which is released into
the atmosphere when they are cleared, contributing to the buildup of
greenhouse gases. In addition, forests are the main reservoir of
terrestrial biological diversity and are a vital resource for
millions of local communities. Forest products also provide the
foundation of many local and national economies.
Biodiversity poses a global, national and local heritage and
resource. Tropical forests and other habitats are renowned for their
rich diversity of flora and fauna. In Cameroon, for example, at
least 8,000 species of higher plants are found, while over half of
Africa’s bird and mammal species are reportedly within the country.
Cameroon contains a variety of forest habitats ranging from montane
forests, which are noted for their globally unique endemic species,
to Atlantic coastal forests, which are rich in plants, to inland
Cameroon-Congolese forests, which are renowned for their mammalian
diversity. Habitat loss and poaching present a major threat to the
Tropical forests provide a range of other benefits, from ecosystem
services, such as water flow and quality maintenance and carbon
storage, to non-timber products sold on local markets and used in
the home. Degradation and clearing of forests worldwide over the
past 150 years is estimated to have contributed 30 percent of the
carbon dioxide that has built up in the atmosphere.
Most of the wood harvested within Africa’s forests and
woodlands is used to meet local energy needs. In the major timber
exporting country Cameroon, in 1998, four times more wood was
harvested for fuel than was sold as industrial roundwood.
Traditional fuels, including firewood and charcoal, accounted for
roughly 80 percent of all energy consumption in that country in
Non-timber forest products, including bark, tubers, leaves,
flowers, seeds, fruits, resins, honey, fungi, and animal products,
play an important role in the households of the urban poor and
forest-dwelling communities. They are used as medicines, tools and
building materials and for food, primarily within local villages and
households. It is difficult to quantify the economic importance of
these commodities, but a study by the Center for International
Forestry Research (CIFOR) estimates that they are an important
source of cash revenue for local communities. Bushmeat, bush mango,
the bark and fruits of Garcinia cola, palm nuts, cola nuts, and the
African pear were among the major cash suppliers. The trade in these
commodities especially is an important source of income for women.
In Cameroon, over half of the log exports in 1998 came from five
tree species that also generate non-timber commodities.
Forests also represent immense cultural values. African
tropical forests are home to a large variety of peoples and
ethnicities, which originate much of their cultural value set from
their physical surroundings. Among the oldest peoples in Central
Africa are forest hunter-gatherers, pejoratively known as "pygmies,”
who immigrated to the region several thousand years ago. These
groups rely primarily on the tropical forests for their livelihood,
medicine, and shelter. Their cultural identity is rooted not only in
language, kinship, oral history, traditional practices but also in
their identification with a particular area of the forest.
Ecotourism is providing a growing income for who have known
to facilitate it. Before the Rwandan genocide and the conflict in
Congo Kinshasa, the national parks in that zone containing mountain
gorillas were getting a major tourist attraction. In Rwanda, traffic
was that high, that visits had to be reserved. In Guinea, before the
conflict in neighbouring Liberia, the border mountain Mount Nimba,
with its rich montane forests, was getting a tourist attraction.
Several countries outside Africa now are attracting those tourists
Africa could attract to its famous forests. Rainforest tourism is
probably one of the least exploited resources in Africa, with great
Although the values of tropical forests are indeed high, only a few
are visible in national budgets. Logging and timber exports give
short term cash income, visible in the GDP. Others are close to
invisible, as revenues are not registered within the monetary sector.
This include, to a certain degree, local use and revenue from
fuelwood and non-timber products, and more clearly, environmental
services such as soil and water protection and storage of carbon
dioxide. Other values again, are partly "robbed" from the conserving
society, as is the example of the use of the genetic industry's use
of African endemic species. If "the cure for cancer" should be found
in the Congolese rainforest, non of the billion dollar revenues
would return to those societies which are now maintaining
biodiversity. Finally, some values need investments to be harvested.
Financial investment in the tourist industry should not exceed
investment in logging, but might require investing in political
change in some countries. Tourists won't come to war-ridden
countries like the Congo, nor will they go to insecure dictatorships
like Equatorial Guinea.
Now, rainforests are being depleted rapidly as the tall trees and
the soils can be exploited profitably on a short term. Montane
forests have suffered from cultivators clearing the hillsides and
transforming them to open woodland pastures or coffee plantations.
The soils of the deciduous forests have been particularly attractive
to cultivators, who have cleared very wide areas. Logging of large
areas is still depriving Africa of some of its last unspoiled
Africa's forests are threatened by a combination of factors
including agricultural expansion, commercial harvesting, increased
firewood collection, inappropriate land and tree tenure regimes,
heavy livestock grazing, and accelerated urbanization and
industrialization. Drought, civil wars and bush fires also
contribute significantly to forest degradation (FAO 1997a and 1998).
Inappropriate agricultural systems such as the chitemene, a system
of shifting cultivation practised in parts of Southern and Central
Africa, and tavy slash-and-burn agriculture in Madagascar, are
responsible for considerable forest losses. Until recently, Southern
Africa was losing more than 200 000 hectares of forests a year to
shifting cultivation (Chidumayo 1986), although this is now starting
to decline as farmers change to more settled agricultural practices.
Throughout Africa, there has been an increasing demand for wood
products, especially firewood, charcoal and roundwood. As a result
the consumption of forest products nearly doubled during 1970-94.
The production and consumption of firewood and charcoal rose from
250 to 502 million m3 during the same period. Recent
projections by FAO estimate that consumption will rise by another 5
per cent by 2010. More recently, new economic reform measures have
removed subsidies on energy alternatives which further increased the
demand for firewood. FAO estimates that at least 90 per cent of
Africans depend on firewood and other biomass for their energy needs.
In Western and Central Africa, much of the tropical humid forests
have already undergone substantial commercial harvesting. The total
volume of wood exploited annually in the sub-region is more than 200
million m3. Accroding to a FAO report, nearly 90 per cent
is consumed as firewood and charcoal, and only 2 per cent as
industrial roundwood. However, as it produces only a small
proportion of the world's industrial roundwood, Africa is a net
importer of industrial wood. Five countries in Northern Africa -
Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia - together account for 60
per cent of the imports. With the exception of a few countries such
as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe,
all sub-Saharan African countries import all their paper.
Large-scale oil exploration and mining in Western and Central Africa
have also led to the loss of forest resources, especially in
Cameroon, the Congo, Gabon and Nigeria.
During 1990-95 the annual rate of deforestation in Africa was about
0.7 per cent, a slight decline from 0.8 per cent during 1980-90,
according to FAOSTAT. The highest rates were recorded in the moist
western parts of the continent. During the 1980s, Africa lost an
estimated 47 million hectares of forest. By 1995 another 19 million
hectares had been lost, according to FAO, an area the size of
Senegal. Losses have been particularly high in countries such as
Uganda, where forest and woodland cover shrunk from an estimated 45
per cent of total land area in 1900 to only 7.7 per cent by 1995,
according to the Ugandan Ministry of Natural Resources.
Tree plantations and agroforestry are increasingly important aspects
of forest rehabilitation, especially in non-tropical Northern and
Southern Africa. Although providing significant amounts of timber,
firewood and other useful products, afforestation rates throughout
Africa are far less than the rate of deforestation, according to
The pressures on African forests will inevitably continue rising to
meet the needs of fast-growing populations in rapidly urbanizing and
industrializing countries, especially if most
of their people remain poor.
Degradation and Fragmentation
The state of the world's forests is not simply a matter of their
extent. Increasing attention is focused upon the health, genetic
diversity, and age profile of forests, collectively known as forest
quality. Measures of total forest area do not reveal the degraded
nature of much regrowth forest. For example, in FAO's forest
assessment, logging is not counted as deforestation, since
logged-over areas can, in theory, regrow to fully functioning
forests. But logging often does degrade forest quality, inducing
soil and nutrient losses and reducing the forest's value as habitat.
Frontier forests are the world's remaining large intact
natural forest ecosystems. These forests are, on the whole,
relatively undisturbed and big enough to maintain all of their
biodiversity, including viable populations of the wide-ranging
species associated with each forest type. These frontier forests
thus are the last islands of a rich, tropical biodiversity. But they
are few and they rapidly grow fewer:
• Only 8% (0.5 million square kilometers) of Africa's original
forest remains as frontier forest.
• Over 90% of West Africa's original forest has been lost; only a
small part of what remains qualifies as frontier forest.
• 77% of Africa's remaining frontier forest are under moderate or
• Logging threatens almost 80% of Africa's threatened frontier
forests, while hunting for bushmeat poses an additional threat to
one-third of threatened frontier forests.
Although information is inaccurate, experts conclude that logging
also poses a severe threat to wildlife in tropical forests. Because
access to current and abandoned logging roads is not properly
controlled, hunting camps are often found in remote areas only
recently opened by logging companies. In Gabon, for example, the
national media, the Ministry of Water and Forests, and other groups
report increasing volumes of bushmeat being transported by logging
All in all, although Africa still might look green, the overall
quality of the ecosystem has heavily degraded. In The Gambia, for
example, the overall picture on the ground is one of much tree cover
in a savanna climate zone. However, land use inventories and
satellite vigilance uncover an immense loss of forest cover and
degradation. In the 1980's, Gambian closed forests lost half their
extension, and almost half of the open forests turned savanna or
cultivated land. Intense fuelwood harvest, bushfires and population
growth are claimed to be the main responsibles.
In forested areas, patches of logging, agricultural advance and
unsustainable harvesting of fuelwood and non-timber products
fragment and degrade remaining forests. Fragmentation leads to loss
of contact with part of the ecosystem necessary to maintain
regeneration and full biodiversity. Many species need large and
diverse areas. Others depend on other species, living in the border
areas of the ecosystem or species being hunted or harvested. Thus,
very few entire forest ecosystems, frontier forests keep existing.
Worldwide, 80% of original forest cover has been cleared, fragmented,
or otherwise degraded in the 20th century. In the Atlantic
rainforests of Brazil, the West African rainforests, Madagascar, and
Sumatra - some of the richest biological treasure houses of the
world - much less than 10% of the original forest cover is left.
There, many populations of plants and animals are losing their
long-term viability through fragmentation and genetic erosion. A
wave of extinctions is just around the corner - unless "radical"
action is taken.
Management and Conservation
Outright loss of forest, however, is not the whole picture.
Comparable areas of forest have been severely degraded. In the humid
tropics, timber harvesting is selective, but tens of millions of
hectares have been cut in unnecessarily destructive ways.
Logs continue to be the preferred currency of political patronage in
many countries with old-growth forests. At the same time, we have
gained a much better understanding of forests in a number of key
areas. Ecologists have started to develop rigorous methods to
prioritise the forests richest in biological diversity and most in
need of protection. Climatologists have a much improved
understanding of how different forest ecosystems have evolved, and
continue to evolve, under changing climates. Environmental
economists are getting a better handle on the long-term economic
importance of the services provided by intact forest ecosystems:
water and nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and the
conservation of many animal and plant species that are likely to
prove useful in the future. Social scientists have documented the
forest management practices of local communities and indigenous
peoples, and analysed how these might be harnessed for the future.
Pioneering foresters have developed low-impact logging techniques
that are sometimes even cheaper than conventional logging.
Many countries have taken steps to combat their forest heritage.
Gabon is heading into the future with ambitious plans to protect 13%
of its territory and start regulating the logging industry in a
better way. Little has been implemented in practical terms, but the
overall intentions are the best. Neighbouring Cameroon has
implemented new logging regulations and a more transparent system of
tender. Other neighbouring countries, however, keep falling into
anarchy (Congo Kinshasa) or to cleptocracy (Equatorial Guinea),
giving enormous concessions to the highest bidder or closest
In other parts of the continent, tremendous achievements have been
made in replanting. Tunisia, which ancient Greek and Roman sources
describe as forested, had lost almost all of its forests during 2000
years of civilization. The first president of independent Tunisia,
Habib Bourgiba, already in the 1960s engaged the entire population
in a massive, collective reforestation project, resulting in a
forest cover of big parts of the north. Reforestation has given
significant environmental services to a country exposed to modest
precipitation and much erosion. Of course biodiversity could not be
reproduced, and much of the forests are monocultures of pine or
eucalyptus (an Australian, drought resistant species), but the
overall positive effects of a forest cover are striking.
Thanks to improved means of communication, knowledge about threats
to forests, such as agricultural conversion, infrastructure
development and mining can be exchanged and used rapidly by
conservation advocates. But despite the existence of all this
knowledge, many high-level decision-makers still view forests as
dispensable quantities, or worse, as obstacles to progress.