About UNEP UNEP Offices News Centre Publications Events Awards Milestones UNEP Store
UNEP Website GEO Home Page

Forest clearance

The annual rate of change in total forest area (land with at least 10 per cent tree cover and 0.5 ha area) from 1990 to 2000 for the whole of Africa was estimated to be -0.74 per cent, equivalent to losing more than 5 million ha of forest a year, an area roughly the size of Togo and the highest rate of any region. Countries with the highest annual deforestation rates are Burundi (9.0 per cent), Comoros (4.3 per cent), Rwanda (3.9 per cent) and Niger (3.7 per cent). In terms of area deforested during 1990-2000, Sudan tops the list with 9.6 million ha, followed by Zambia (8.5 million ha), Democratic Republic of Congo (5.3 million ha), Nigeria (4.0 million ha) and Zimbabwe (3.2 million ha). Only seven countries increased their forest areas over the same period (FAO 2001a).

Economic development strategies and lax implementation of forest protection regulations are the principal pressures on forest resources. Governments in Western and Central Africa have given concessions to private firms for logging selected species. The timber is mostly exported to earn foreign exchange. In countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone political instability and war have further contributed to deforestation. Forest clearance has negative economic impacts through loss of future export opportunities, tourism revenue and pharmaceutical development options. The annual cost of deforestation in Uganda has been conservatively estimated at US$3-6 million (NEMA 2000).

Weak and ineffective policies have contributed to forest clearance. In Eastern Africa, for example, forestry departments throughout the 1980s were given a low priority, resulting in weak or outdated policies, laws and regulations governing forest management. In Southern Africa, most forestry policies and laws were enacted in the 1970s, and have since become obsolete with small and non-deterrent fines for non-compliance. Policy failures in Western Africa include lack of attention to developing alternative energy sources, inadequate funding of forestry departments, lack of support for private investment in sustainable forest management and reforestation, and out-dated concepts of forest conservation and community participation. However, levels of awareness on forestry issues have been greatly raised through international lobbying, extension services and the activities of NGOs. Several countries are now correcting these institutional weaknesses, and forest policies are being reviewed, revised or redrafted. Communities have become more involved in policy making, as well as in implementing forest management strategies. International cooperative initiatives have been developed in Southern and Central Africa (FAO 2001b).

Clearing of forests for agriculture has played a significant role in deforestation. In Northern Africa, 13 per cent of forest cover was lost during 1972-92, and in Nigeria deforestation of riparian forests and savannahs for agricultural development was estimated at more than 470 000 ha a year during 1978-96 (DoF Nigeria 1996). In Africa as a whole, 60 per cent of the tropical forest cleared between 1990 and 2000 has been converted into permanent agricultural smallholdings (FAO 2001a).

Some large-scale reforestation programmes have been implemented but most have introduced monocultures without the biological diversity of the natural forests they replace. While some of the more arid countries have increased the size of their forests, reforestation programmes have done little to slow deforestation rates, particularly in moist tropical forests (ADB 2000, FAO 2001a).

Another response has been to designate forests as protected areas. Some 11.7 per cent of African forests have protected area status (FAO 2001a). While the establishment of protected areas has increased the availability and quality of information on forest resources, promoted public awareness and created refuges for endangered species, these areas will meet their objectives only if protection measures are enforced (see box).

Agricultural encroachment in Uganda and Kenya

In Mt Elgon National Park, on the Uganda/Kenya border, agricultural encroachment in the 1970s and 1980s laid bare more than 25 000 ha of virgin forest. In Kibale National Park, Uganda, encroachers cleared more than 10 000 ha of forest. In Mabira Forest Reserve, the Kanani Cooperative Farmers Society entered the forest in 1975. The district administration perceived them as a self-help project rather than as encroachers, and gave cultivation permits to 115 of their members. The permits specified that no more forested land should be cleared, valuable timber tree species should be preserved, and no buildings should be erected. Regulations were not enforced and by 1981 more than 1 800 people had moved in and degraded more than 7 200 ha of the reserve.

In Kenya, between 1995 and 2000, the whole of the indigenous forest in the Imenti Forest Reserve on the slopes of Mt Kenya was illegally converted into cropland. Designated as a forest reserve since 1932, under which no clearance activities were permitted, forest policies clearly failed to provide adequate protection. Landsat images below show loss of forest (red); each image is about 20 km wide.

Sources: NEMA 2000, KWS 1999, Landsat TM 17 March 1995, Landsat ETM 5 February 2000

Commercial forestry management has evolved towards a more sustainable philosophy. The forest ecosystem is becoming the focus of management, rather than timber extraction, and non-timber forest resources are given consideration. In Southern Africa, there is a growing realization of the importance of trade in forest products from sustainably managed forests, and a small proportion of forests in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FAO 2001a).

Community-based forest management schemes are also being established, with considerable benefits to community income levels and forest conservation. In Eastern Africa, agroforestry schemes are being introduced to meet the dual need for agricultural production and tree products from smallholdings. In Kenya, afforestation and reforestation at household and commercial scale have been able to supply people with fuelwood, poles, sawn wood, wood-based panels, and pulp and paper.