Approximately 22 per cent of the African continent is covered with forests, ranging from open savanna to closed tropical rainforest. Forests provide a great many goods and services which benefit local communities and national economies, as well as providing international environmental benefits. Commercial forest products include timber for construction and paper, but forest resources provide much more to local communities including food, construction materials, grazing areas for livestock, cultural and medicinal products, sites for religious practices and leisure activities, and fuel for cooking, heating and lighting. Forests protect and stabilize the soil, recycle nutrients to maintain soil quality and regulate water quality and flow. Forests are also vast sinks for atmospheric carbon dioxide, and thus play a critical role in mitigating global climate change the impacts of which are predicted to be most severe for African countries and other developing nations. By protecting soils and by regulating temperatures, rainfall and hydrological systems, forests provide basic support systems for agriculture and industry, and, therefore, for the economies of African nations.
... the true value of the variety of forest resources and services on which local communities and the global community depend needs to be made explicit and either incorporated into the price of forest products or traded on the open market. Economic and social development priorities need to be integrated into forest conservation measures, so that local communities can share in the management of the resource and in the benefits of trade in their products
Natural forests and woodlands in Africa have been drastically reduced in size over the last century but particularly so since independence, as countries have struggled to improve their economies through exploitation of natural resources. Deforestation for commercial timber sales and clearance for agricultural and urban developments are the most intensive pressures, as well as overharvesting of wood for fuel, medicinal products, and construction materials. Remaining forests have also been degraded as a result of clear felling, fires, selective harvesting, and encroachment. Impacts of this degradation include losses of biodiversity, radically increased rates of soil erosion, reductions in water quality and increased risk of flooding in surrounding areas, and loss of livelihoods for local communities. The global community has also lost potential pharmaceutical and food products.
Pressures remain even though many countries in Africa have protected forest reserves, initiated reforestation and afforestation programmes, and have developed policies and programmes for sustainable forest management. And those pressures are set to increase with increasing populations and demand for forest resources. The developing countries are struggling to commit the necessary financial and human resources to their efforts in order to be able to turn away much needed foreign exchange proposed in return for further logging concessions. If they are to succeed, the true value of the variety of forest resources and services on which local communities and the global community depend needs to be made explicit and either incorporated into the price of forest products or traded on the open market. Economic and social development priorities need to be integrated into forest conservation measures, so that local communities can share in the management of the resource and in the benefits of trade in their products. This requires further understanding of the types of forests, the complexity of the issues, and establishment of clear objectives and commitment of resources to implementation of sustainable development policies. Essential elements that must be taken into account include recognition of the intrinsic features of the local physical environment, impacts of climate change, deforestation factors, skills in forest management, scarcity of forest resources, deep-rooted traditions and human impacts, economic forces and political events. There must also be concerted efforts to provide alternative sources of energy, more efficient forms of energy utilization (such as mudstoves) and to provide income to people relying on natural forests. The major solutions for forest problems in the region include reforestation of the original and more prosperous areas and afforestation of multipurpose forests that can be used for grazing, wood production and other traditional uses. Establishment of multipurpose forests will diversify outputs, an important asset to avoid overuse of one-purpose forest.