Environment - Nature
Forests and deforestation in Africa
- the wasting of an immense resource
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 Africa has 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 frontier forest.
• Within the Congo Basin, between 1980
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 is replanted.
• 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 loc
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 1995.
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 potentials.
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 forests.
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
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 FAO.
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 high threat.
• 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 trucks.
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 familiar.
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.
By Rainer Chr. Hennig
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