The range of climatic conditions and geomorphology found in Africa has created a wide diversity of habitats, which various species of flora and fauna have evolved to exploit. As a result, the region is exceedingly well endowed with diverse biological resources. The forests of Africa are particularly diverse and support many millions of Africans by providing them with food, clothing and construction materials, medicinal products, and cultural and recreational facilities. However, in many cases the value of these resources is undetermined because they are not traded on the open market. Other products, such as timber are commercially traded and make substantial contributions to GDPs. Studies have estimated the value of biological resources to be millions of dollars every year.
Africa’s biodiversity has been subjected to increasing pressures of habitat loss (through conversion of natural habitats to urban, industrial or agricultural uses), overharvesting (due to increasing population and rising consumption levels), pollution (from urban and industrial sources), and the introduction of alien species (which dominate and alter habitat conditions). These pressures are set to continue and intensify over the next decade or two because of rapid population growth and extensive use of natural resources in most economic activities. At the root of this, however, is a lack of proper valuation of natural resources. In many cases, resources are not perceived to be limited and are therefore consumed as if they were ‘free’, rather than being consumed sustainably, i.e. leaving sufficient resources in the system to regenerate or reproduce and thus ensure a continued supply.
Traditionally, African societies recognized the importance of biological resources, and employed traditional conservation measures. Under colonial administrations the perceived solution to habitat loss was to declare nationally protected areas and ban all or most activities. The current rate of species extinctions all across the Africa region testifies that this approach is insufficient. Traditional knowledge and practices must be re-incorporated into regional conservation strategies, and communities and commercial companies must be provided with alternative resources or means of production. Simply excluding activities from one area intensifies the pressure on other areas and resources. Community conservation, or community based natural resource management can take a variety of forms, and presents a range of options. It is likely to be more successful where care has been taken to understand the situation faced by each community, and to apply a strategy that best fits the circumstances (Adams & Hulme 2001). Ratification of international conventions and establishment of regional action plans is a measure of political commitment to resolving these issues, but needs to be supported with human and financial resources not just to comply with obligations, but to implement activities and projects at the national and sub-national level. It is important to take into account the inequalities and local costs that form the basis for losses of biodiversity, and to avoid the temptation of trying to rely entirely on free-market economics (Western 2001) Win-win situations must be developed in order to sustain livelihoods and economies while retaining a biological resource base which is intact and functioning properly.
Many of the most valuable biodiversity resources extend beyond national or sub-regional borders. In order to avoid conflicts, and to manage and use these resources sustainably, African countries and subregional groupings must cooperate in devising policies, programmes and projects that harmonize biodiversity management and conservation throughout ecologically determined regions. This calls for a sustained effort on regional integration of environmental management.