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Deforestation Threatens Life Across Africa

Tropical rainforests cover about 12 percent of Africa. They represent a substantial percentage of global forest cover. They contain the richest biodiversity on the continent, but deforestation and degradation are accelerating at alarming rates.

Large-scale exploitation of African forests went hand-in-hand with European colonization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when natural resources like timber, ebony and ivory began to be harvested and exported at unprecedented scales.

Throughout the 20th century, colonial powers granted themselves or private companies large swathes of forested lands in the form of concessions, with the rights to exploit natural resources in exchange for a share of the profits (and/or various obligations to govern and ‘develop’ the area).

In many cases, this meant slashing and burning virgin forests for commercial crops, such as cocoa, coffee, palm oil, rubber and tea. During the 1960s, as many African nations won independence, governments often passed on concession contracts to the same private companies. The concession model persists in many tropical nations today. Stockholders’ interests are overshadowing the interests of local and global stakeholders.

During the 1960s, as many African nations won independence, governments often maintained the concession model, passing on contracts to the same private companies or similar new ones. The objectives of those concessions varied in line with the chosen ‘development’ model.

Liberia lost 12 percent of its forests in between 1990 and 2010. Since 2010, the DRC has lost more than 500,000 ha of forest per year, including a loss of 1.3 million hectares in 2013 alone.

To understand the causes and effects of deforestation in Africa today, it’s important to note that there are important differences between a rainforest and a dry forest. The rainforests are found in three distinct areas:

  • These are the Congo Basin rainforests; 
  • the ‘Upper Guinea’ forests of West Africa (which are separated from the Congo Basin by a dry area between Nigeria and Ghana); and 
  • isolated forest ‘islands’ on mountains, and along the East African coast. Africa’s rainforests are not as wet as those on other continents, and have gone through phases of contraction and expansion over the millennia in response to climate change.

Forests and woodlands cover vast areas of Africa. Within Africa’s 3.5 million square kilometers of rainforests there are just five world heritage sites, covering an area of 63,000 km2:

The greatest concentration of intact rainforest in Africa is found in the Congo basin, covering an area of around 2 million square km across countries including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, DRC Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Republic of Congo. 

Dry forests cover a greater area of the continent than rainforests, stretching across the Sahel region from Senegal to Somalia, and across regions like the Miombo forest in Southern Africa. They are not as dense as rainforests, but a relatively small tree must withstand harsher climate conditions and may have taken more than a century to reach its size prior to harvesting. The destruction of highly valuable commercial tree species in a dry forest – like those grouped under the common name rosewood – at the rates seen in recent years is devastating. Once lost, the entire fragile ecosystem is permanently altered and hard to recover.

deforestation and global warming

Agriculture accounts for approximately 75 percent of deforestation in Africa. This includes both subsistence farming and industrial agriculture (cocoa, palm oil and cattle).

Continuous deforestation in Africa, as in other regions, can have severe and far-reaching negative consequences, most urgently including damage to habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem services that are essential for planetary health and human wellbeing, including the availability of nutritional food, climate and water regulation.

Deforestation is a complex challenge in Africa due to land ownership patterns that are different from other continents. In many African countries, there is little privately owned land. Most land is owned by the state. People cultivate areas that their families have used for generations, but they are reluctant to invest or employ sustainability principles since they own nothing.

Meanwhile, most of Africa’s energy needs are still met by burning wood, either directly or in the form of locally produced charcoal. As the continent’s population increases, governments will have to invest heavily in the energy transition to reduce impacts on dry forests and rainforests alike.

Both agriculture and charcoal-making – among several other activities conducted in and around forests such as timber extraction and collection and commercialization of non-wood timber products – remain almost entirely informal. This adds another layer of complexity.

These sectors contribute to huge informal economies at the national level, which sustain local livelihoods but are extremely difficult to monitor, manage and frame into development plans and effective policies. Given the lack of clear rights and documentation, a great deal of confusion exists about what type of land use is taking place and where.

Millions of informal workers, while providing the engine of Africa’s economy, have almost no legal rights to their land and livelihoods. Many live under the constant uncertainty of a system which may confiscate ‘their’ land and hand it to large mining, logging and agribusiness companies as part of broader ‘development’ plans issued by central governments.

This deters informal workers from taking a long-term, sustainable approach to their activities, instead compelling them to exploit forests as intensely as possible while they still can – chopping down trees and using the resources immediately, rather than conserving them for future generations.

The present-day distributions of different species owe much to climate change over the millennia, and the ability of individual species to survive (as forests have contracted during dry periods) and re-colonize areas (as warmer, wetter conditions take hold and forests are able to expand). The okapi – a kind of forest giraffe – lives only in the north-eastern corner of the Congo Basin;  the pygmy hippo is restricted to West African rainforests; and the bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee) occurs only to the south of the great Congo River. Thus conservation of the full range of African rainforest species requires protection of a network of carefully selected sites, each protecting a different suite of species.

forest conservation and climate change

There are 45 natural world heritage sites in Africa, including four on the islands of Madagascar and the Seychelles. The five existing world heritage sites in the lowland rainforests, together with those straddling the Great Rift, represent an excellent opportunity to protect most of the key species typical of Africa’s rainforests. A major initiative is currently underway to identify possible additional sites in the central African lowland rainforests (the Central African World Heritage Forests Initiative, CAWHFI), and there is still a need for world heritage status for the highly distinctive forests of the ‘Eastern Arc Mountains’ in Tanzania, as well as the East African coastal forests from Kenya to southern Mozambique.

The high number of African sites on the endangered list reflects the particular challenges of this continent, especially the occurrence of periodic civil unrest and war. Other threats include:

Mining and mineral exploitation. The present boom in commodity prices has resulted in a huge surge in mineral exploration activity across Africa.

Dam-building, water diversion and abstraction. Water is needed everywhere – for power generation, agricultural irrigation and industrial development.

Roads and infrastructure development. Plans for major new roads through world heritage sites – such as the infamous motorway scheme that would have passed through the Giza Pyramids’ site, or the new Serengeti highway – tend to attract strong opposition and the threat they pose can often be averted through a combination of approaches involving the international media, public protest, diplomatic and political channels.

Poaching, logging and resource exploitation. Most natural sites are affected to some extent by illegal hunting and other forms of resource use, but this only becomes a serious problem when the level of off-take exceeds the natural replenishment rate. Large mammals that are targeted for their valuable trophies, such as rhino and elephant are particularly vulnerable.

Human settlement. Africa’s portfolio of world heritage sites encompasses everything from bustling historical cities and living rural landscapes to pristine wilderness areas free of human settlement. Often the protection of heritage values requires the exclusion of people, especially in the case of archaeological and natural sites.

Climate change. The long-term impact of climate change is difficult to assess but natural sites are likely to be significantly altered as global temperatures warm. The glaciers on East Africa’s high mountains (Kilimanjaro, the Rwenzoris and Mount Kenya) are melting fast and are likely to disappear altogether within two or three decades. Ecological communities will ‘migrate’ to higher elevations, pushing out the rare plants and animals that presently occur near mountain summits. Meanwhile, rising sea-levels may submerge coastal wetlands and mudflats such as those at Banc D’Arguin affecting the congregations of migrant waders.

Poorly regulated tourism development. Tourism brings enormous economic benefits and most African sites are not yet over-burdened by excessive numbers of visitors. There is still an opportunity to ‘do things right’ as far as tourism development is concerned, providing an effective regulatory framework to ensure that heritage values are protected while maximizing visitor satisfaction. There are a few sites where tourism-related pressures already present a real threat, including damage to some of the Egyptian monuments and Roman ruins of north Africa (where people often climb on the monuments), and loss of wilderness values associated with lodge developments, camps, off-road driving and other infrastructure in some of the more popular national parks such as Victoria Falls, Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, Selous, and Mana Pools.

Lack of political will and leadership. The job of politicians is to balance the (often conflicting) demands of various stakeholders in making development decisions.  From a heritage perspective, short-term economic gains are too often favored over longer-term goals that protect heritage values.  Ever since the decision to build the Aswan High Dam in Egypt (1960-71), politicians have embraced grand schemes that come at a heavy cost to heritage. The Serengeti highway may have been averted for now, but strong political leadership is required to prevent other potentially damaging developments such as the proposed new port at Lamu, the series of dams on Lake Turkana’s main inflowing rivers, the flooding of the Zambezi Valley at Mana Pools or the expansion of mining on Mount Nimba.

World Heritage At Risk

Manovo-Gounda St Floris National Park (Central African Republic) was added to the Danger list in 1997 on account of the worsening security situation in the north of the country and the inability of park authorities to operate effectively in combating threats to the property. Poaching escalated and most of the larger mammals have been killed in subsequent years.  There is still no immediate prospect of improvement as the area remains insecure and most of the park infrastructure has been destroyed. 

Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve (Cote D’Ivoire) was added to the Danger list in 1992 on account of the threat from mining. A large part of the original trans-boundary reserve, on the Guinean side of the border,  was de-gazetted to allow for a major open cast iron-ore mining operation to be undertaken in the higher reaches of the mountain. As much of the mountain consists of high-grade iron ore, there remains a very real risk of further excisions and total destruction of much of the higher-elevation forest, grasslands and unique biodiversity.  The Liberian ‘end’ of the range has already been extensively damaged by similar mining operations in the past.

Comoe National Park (Cote D’Ivoire) was added to the Danger list in 2003 as Cote D’Ivoire broke down into civil war and the park and surrounding areas fell into the hands of ‘rebel’ forces. Most park staff were withdrawn and poaching escalated. Although the war is now over, much of the park infrastructure has been destroyed, park access roads are no longer accessible and park staff  are only slowly returning to their posts. It will take many years – even under the best of circumstances – for wildlife populations to recover. 

Sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All of Congo’s world heritage sites have suffered as an indirect result of the rebellion which led to the overthrow of President Mobutu in the mid-90s; turmoil surrounding the Rwandan genocide and associated influx of refugees; followed by subsequent periods of civil unrest. Parks in the east of the country have been most affected, but even Salonga National Park was added to the danger List in 1999. Earlier, Virunga National Park was In Danger by 1994, quickly followed by Garamba National Park in 1996, and both Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Okapi Wildlife Reserve in 1997.

Abu Mena (Egypt) was added to the Danger list in 2001 as many of the ancient structures began to suffer as a result of subsidence associated with a rising water-table because of new irrigation and agricultural development in the area. Efforts are being made to counteract this by improving drainage and shoring up the affected buildings.  But an effective long-term solution has not yet been achieved.

Simien National Park (Ethiopia) was added to the Danger list in 1996 as rebel armies took control of this region of northern Ethiopia and the park suffered a further influx of people, threatening the habitat of the Simien fox, Walia ibex and other critically endangered endemic wildlife. Although wildlife populations are now recovering well, there is still some way to go in achieving long-term sustainable management for the park and re-establishing viable populations of key species.

Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve (Guinea) was added to the Danger list in 1992 due to a mining threat.

Rainforests of the Atsinanana (Madagascar) were added to the Danger list in 2010 on account of political and civil unrest throughout the country, the withdrawal of much international aid (including funds that were critical to the management of the various separate forests that make up the property), and an escalating problem of illegal timber cutting.

Air and Tenere Natural Reserves (Niger) was added to the Danger list in 1992 as the area fell under the control of rebel Tuareg groups and government lost control. Most of the large mammals and other endangered wildlife has subsequently been destroyed.

Niokolo-Koba National Park (Senegal) was added to the Danger list in 2007 in response to a pervasive deterioration in management capacity and the decline of large mammal populations as a result of poaching. 

Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Ruins of Songo Mnara (Tanzania) were added to the Danger list in 2004 as a result of a general deterioration of the structures and lack of capacity to take remedial action.

Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi (Uganda) was added to the Danger list in 2010 following its destruction by fire.

Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia (Mali) were added to the Danger list in 2012 following the destruction of some of the ancient mausoleums in Timbuktu by religious extremists seeking to establish their own fundamentalist Islamist state in northern Mali

Sites Removed From The Danger List

The Rwenzori Mountains National Park (Uganda) was added to the Danger List in 1999 when a rebel insurgency resulted in loss of management control and closure of the park to visitors. Peace was subsequently restored and the park removed from the Danger List in 2004.

Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary (Senegal) was included on the Danger List between 2000 and 2006 on the basis of threats from invasive species of aquatic plant, and problems of salinity and siltation associated with the construction of dams and sluices to control the flow of the Senegal River.

Ichkeul National Park (Tunisia) was included on the Danger List between 1996 and 2006 due to salinity problems resulting from the damming of inflowing rivers. This affected the ecology of the lake severely, reducing the quantity of freshwater plant life and the populations of over-wintering waterfowl. These have never fully recovered.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area (Tanzania) was one of the first sites to be inscribed on the List of World Heritage In Danger, from 1984-89, due to a deterioration in its general ecological condition resulting from poor management. Ngorongoro Conservation Area is one of Africa’s most important wildlife areas and a bold experiment in multiple land use. At its core is the world famous Ngorongoro Crater – a giant caldera in which the dramas of life on the African plains are played out each day by a diverse assemblage of large mammals – wildebeest, zebra, lion and rhino – in a primeval garden of Eden. Beyond the crater rim, Maasai pastoralists herd their cattle across the plains, seemingly oblivious to the herds of wild animals sharing this vast landscape, the ‘endless plains’ of Serengeti. Lake-filled Empakaai crater and the active volcano of Oldonyo Lengai are nearby. The area is also of great significance in tracing the origins of mankind with excavations in the Oldupai Gorge and Laetoli, resulting in discoveries of fossil remains of Homo habilis, and 3.5 million-year old human footprints.

Twice a year ungulate herds migrate across the Serengeti to reach seasonal grazing grounds which stretch from the Ngorongoro highlands in the south to Kenya’s Masai Mara in the north. The migration includes herds of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles, followed by predators.

biodiversity and deforestation

Meanwhile, The UN has recommended reforesting the greater Mt. Kilimanjaro area. It represents a collection of several ecosystems across Tanzania and even Kenya. These are some of the most threatened ecosystems on earth. Millions of people and priceless biodiversity rely on these ecosystems for food, water and survival. Several local NGOs have stepped forward with action plans. Hope is on the horizon, but they need your help.

deforestation and global warming and climate change

Sacred Seedlings is a global initiative to support forest conservation, reforestation, urban forestry, carbon capture, sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation. Sustainable land management is critical to the survival of entire ecosystems. Sacred Seedlings is a charitable division of Crossbow Communications.

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Avatar Gary Chandler

Author: Gary Chandler

Gary Chandler is the founder and Executive Director of Sacred Seedlings.