Lead Author: Munyaradzi Chenje
Contributing Authors: Clever Mafuta, Ahmed Abdelrheim


Africa is the second largest continent in the world after Asia, and with a total land area of more than 3 025.8 million ha, its landmass is more than three times that of the United States of America. Of Africa’s 53 countries, Sudan is the largest, covering 250.39 million ha and Seychelles the smallest, covering only 45 600 ha (Global Geografia undated). In terms of population density, Mauritius was in 2001 the most densely populated with 583 people/100 ha, compared to Namibia, the least densely populated at 2 people/100 ha (Global Geografia undated).


Figure 1: Eco-regions The African landscape is a rich and dynamic mosaic of resources, which includes forests and woodlands, arable land, mountains, deserts, coastal lands and freshwater systems, that holds vast opportunities for development and improving human well-being if managed sustainably.

Forests and woodlands

Forests and woodlands cover about 650 million ha or 21.8 per cent of the land area (FAO 2003). About 16.8 per cent of global forest cover is found in Africa, with the Congo basin home to the second largest contiguous block of tropical rainforest in the world (FAO 2003). Chapter 6: Forests and Woodlands, provides a more comprehensive analysis of the resources and opportunities they provide for sustainable development in Africa.

Arable land

Figure 2: Climatic zones About 630 million ha of land in Africa is suitable for cultivation, supporting the majority of the people through subsistence and commercial agriculture. Agricultural productivity is closely linked to environmental factors, including soil quality and water availability.

Agriculture makes an important contribution to earnings. In Morocco, for example, the agricultural sector was worth US$7 000 million in 2002, of which US$1 000 million was export earnings (FAO 2004b).

Africa’s soils are classified into six different categories, with the first four being of good quality which unfortunately cover only 10.6 per cent of the land area or 3 100 million ha and support about 400 million people (Reich and others 2001). Classes I-IV do not have major constraints and rainfall is usually stable and adequate for at least one major crop per season. However, Classes V-VI of the soils in Africa are of poor quality and have limitations which make low- input agriculture on which many people depend a challenge. Classes V-VI soils are highly acidic, impermeable, frequently waterlogged, easily accumulate salts, and require major investments to manage. They cover 11 200 million ha and support about 200 million people, that is about 23 per cent of the population (Reich and others 2001).


Wetlands cover about 1 per cent of the region’s total surface area, and are found in virtually all countries. Some of the more prominent wetlands include the Congo Swamps, the Chad Basin, the Okavango Delta, the Bangweulu swamps, the floodplains and deltas of the Niger and Zambezi Rivers, and the Greater St Lucia Park wetlands in South Africa. In 1999 the Okavango Delta, which covers 6.864 million ha of Botswana’s land area, constituted nearly 10 per cent of the total area of the world’s wetlands protected under the Ramsar Convention and almost 50 per cent of the area designated in Africa (Frazier 1999).

Wetlands are not only critical in terms of biodiversity but also support many communities, providing a diversity of livelihood activities. For example, in Tanzania’s Rufiji Delta, a study covering 720 000 ha found that crop production has a gross market value of US$3.8 million annually, and natural resources have an economic direct use value of US$10.3 million annually (Turpie 2000). Most coastal wetlands in Africa support mangrove forests, which extend from Senegal to Angola on the west coast and from Somalia to South Africa on the east coast. Fisheries in estuaries and lagoons, for example, contribute to national economies, accounting for more than three-quarters of fishery landings in Africa (UNEP 2003). Wetlands issues are analysed in more detail in Chapter 4: Freshwater and Chapter 5: Coastal and Marine Environments.