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The 1990 Forest Resources Assessment by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated the extent of forests and other wooded land in Africa as about 1.14 billion hectares (approximately 38 per cent of total land area) some of which is in drylands.

The total area of tropical forests in Africa in 1990 was estimated to be approximately 530 million hectares, compared with 569 million hectares in 1980 (the average annual rate of deforestation was 0.7 per cent). (See Figure 2.2.) Africa 's rainforests covered about 7 per cent of the land surface in 1992, representing slightly less than 20 per cent of the total remaining global rainforests. The forests of Africa are the most depleted of all the tropical regions, with only 30 per cent or so of the historical stands still remaining (UNEP, 1994).

Africa 's closed canopy tropical moist forests range from the mangroves of Senegal on the west coast to the montane forests of Jevel Hantara near the eastern tip of Somalia . Most of the countries of western Africa were once clothed in forest from the coast to deep inland. Central Africa still contains vast and more or less continuous stretches of rainforest. Around 80 per cent of the rainforest on the continent is concentrated in this area, particularly in Zaire (see also Box 2.1 , on the Congo Basin ). Moving to the south of the continent, the main forest block gives way to dense miombo woodlands with scattered patches of dry deciduous type forest. In eastern Africa , the moist forest gradually disappears as the climate becomes more arid. In these areas, forests occur only in strips bordering rivers, along the tops or slopes of mountains, or on the wet coastal hills.

Box 2.1

Some Areas of Rich Biodiversity and Forests in Africa

Western Africa

The relic blocks of forests left at Gola in Sierra Leone, at Sapo in Liberia, and at Tai in Côte d'Ivoire are now of global importance as the last significant remains of the structurally complex and species-rich forests of the upper Guinea zone (UNEP, 1994). Some areas-such as Fouta Djallon , Mount Nimba , and Loma at the head of major watersheds in western Africa (the Niger , Senegal , and Gambia rivers)-encompass areas of exceptional biodiversity. These remaining centres of biodiversity are at risk (World Bank, 1995).

The Congo Basin

This area constitutes the second largest contiguous primary tropical rainforest area in the world. It has the lowest population density in Africa but the highest level of urbanization (52 per cent ). One of the main economic activities is forest exploitation; others include mining, gas and oil exploration, and related industrial activities. Although the environment problems of the subregion are less severe compared with others on the continent, a future development challenge is to maintain the primary forest intact while drawing benefits from its local use (World Bank, 1995).

Islands of the Indian Ocean

The biodiversity of some of the island countries of the Indian Ocean are of global significance. The diversity of the landscapes in Madagascar and the extremely high level of endemism of its flora and fauna have put this country on the list of environmental priorities in the world (World Bank, 1995). Most of these species are found in the remaining forest areas.

It has been estimated that there were originally about 11.2 million hectares of eastern rainforest, which was reduced to 7.6 million hectares by 1950 and to 3.8 million hectares by 1985. The main causes of the deforestation are slash-and-burn (or tavy) agriculture and cutting of fuelwood to sustain the growing population. The population is still rural, surviving by subsistence agriculture (WCMC, 1992). Madagascar and parts of southern Africa were the home of the giant ostrich, or elephant bird, a huge, 3-metre-tall flightless creature whose 11 known species have long been extinct. The mummified bodies and gigantic eggs of this bird have been found in the Madagascar swamps. Their demise was probably caused by human activities (UNEP, 1994).

Other endemic species of the Indian Ocean islands include the red colobus monkey, found only on Zanzibar Island , and the different species of fruit bats or "flying foxes" found in the forests of Seychelles and Mafia and on the Pemba Islands of Tanzania .


UNEP.1994. The Convention on Biological Diversity: Issues of Relevance to Africa . Regional Ministerial Conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity. October. UNEP/AMCEN/RCU 7/1 (A), 27 July.

WCMC. 1992. Global Biodiversity: Status of the World Living Resources. World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Chapman and Hall. London .

World Bank. 1995.Toward Environmentally Sustainable Development in Sub-Saharan Africa .

Deforestation is a major problem throughout Africa , although its causes and magnitude vary by region. The major cause is related to forest clearance for agriculture (particularly commercial farming and to some extent shifting cultivation) and the harvesting of fuelwood (SARDC, 1994a; UNECA, 1992). In sub-Saharan Africa , 70 per cent of total energy consumed and 90 per cent of household energy are derived from wood fuel, and it has been estimated that in Africa each family uses at least 7 metric tons of wood a year (SADC ELMS, 1993).

An extensive shortage of fuelwood is already particularly apparent in the Sudano-Sahelian belt, including in Burkina Faso , Chad , The Gambia, and Niger (World Bank, 1995). Commercial logging is limited, but settlement and agriculture around roads built to transport timber has resulted in additional clearing of forest areas (World Bank, 1995). In northern Africa , deforestation is particularly severe in Algeria , Morocco , and Tunisia (World Bank, 1994). What remains of the forests in humid West Africa are disappearing at the alarming rate of about 2 per cent a year, and exceeding 5 per cent in the extreme case of Côte d'Ivoire (World Bank, 1995). In eastern Africa , severe encroachment and exploitation are destroying the forests that occur in fragmented patches (UNEP, 1994). Additional causes of deforestation in southern Africa include clearing of land for refugee camps, construction materials, tobacco curing, and tsetse fly controls (SARDC, 1994b; Babu and Hassan, 1995).

United Nations Environment Programme
United Nations Environment Programme





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