The forest sector plays an important role in the economic development of many countries and livelihoods of many communities in the region. On average, forests account for 6 per cent of GDP in the Africa region, which is the highest in the world (NEPAD 2003). They provide resources for energy, food and medicines, as well as timber and non-timber forest products (NTFP) which have considerable potential to generate income. Forests and woodland can contribute to the long-term social and economic development goals of NEPAD. They are also key environmental components, and have a fundamental link to the provision of other environmental goods-and- services. They are critical to the success of the other aspects of NEPAD’s Environmental Action Plan (NEPAD-EAP) programmes, including combating land degradation and climate change, conserving wetlands, coastal and freshwater resources, and controlling alien invasive species.

Forests and woodlands have multiple values at all levels of human society, including the community, national, sub-regional, regional or global levels. At the local (community) level forests and woodlands have multiple uses, which vary extensively with the type of forest, and the community. These include construction materials, foods, energy, medicines, catchment protection, soil protection, shelter and shade, habitat for wild life and grazing as well as cultural values (sacred groves, shade, peace trees and plants, meeting places, boundaries, training areas). Local communities therefore use forests and their products in a multitude of ways that differ from direct commercial exploitation or conversion to agricultural land. At the national level and regional level forests and woodlands also play an important role in catchment protection for water quality, hydropower, and regulation of river flows, prevention of soil erosion, timber products, biodiversity, non-timber forest products (food, materials, and medicinal substances), energy and leisure. At the global level they are valued for their role in climate regulation and as repositories for biodiversity.

However, forests in the region are declining in quantity and quality, due to a number of factors. Chief among them are demand for fuel and agricultural land, livestock production and plantations (rubber, coffee and cocoa), population growth, and infrastructure development. Other pressures include inappropriate forest policies, lack of enforcement, weak forest departments, and low investments in research, training and management. Management challenges include incomplete inventorying, poor monitoring and enforcement, poor governance (such as inadequate community involvement and decentralization) and inadequate valuation of natural resources (goods-and-services).

Urbanization is also a major driver of environmental degradation in its immediate vicinity, particularly deforestation due to increasing fuelwood demand from the urban poor and pollution resulting from improper location of garbage disposal sites.

Conflicts have also taken their toll on forests, especially in the Great Lakes Region (GLR) and parts of western Africa. In these areas, conflict has rendered state agencies ineffective, peacetime efforts at forest protection are suspended, and illegal loggers, even if not directly involved in the conflict, can proceed unchecked. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a series of civil wars in the 1990s created a power vacuum and broke down conventional forest management regimes, fostering illegal logging and other resource conflicts (Renner 2002).

The impact of forest and woodland degradation is having undesirable manifestations. In many countries, the change in area and quality of forest cover has resulted in catchment destruction, siltation, loss of hydroelectric power and soil erosion. Timber products are becoming scarcer in a number of countries, including Uganda and Kenya, who have imposed restrictions on harvesting in natural forests. Collaborative forest management and developing markets for environmental services exemplify innovative policy responses in dealing with the problem of deforestation. They represent part of a new paradigm that explicitly recognizes the need to bridge the interests of communities that are dependent on forests as well as landholders and those of the conservation agencies and external beneficiaries, while ensuring tangible benefits for conservation and livelihoods (CIFOR 2005, Brown 1999).