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The vast majority of Africa's tropical moist and tropical rainforests exist in West and Central Africa. However, these forests are rapidly vanishing; according to the FAO, Africa lost the highest percentage of rainforests during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s of any biogeographical realm.

Map of Africa - Rhett Butler 2000
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Around the turn of the century, West Africa had some 193,000 sq. miles (500,000 sq. km) of coastal rainforest but today the tropical forests of West Africa—mostly lowland formations easily accessible from the coast—have been largely depleted by commercial exploitation, namely logging, and conversion for agriculture. Now, according to the figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, only 22.8 percent of West Africa's moist forests remain, much of this degraded. In more populous states, notably Nigeria, human population pressures have put a tremendous strain on forests, while other countries like Côte d'Ivoire have suffered extensive forest loss as a result of commercial logging and agriculture. The effects from forest loss are yet to be fully understood, though erosion has greatly increased as has the incidence of drought in the interior countries of Mali and Niger. These coastal forests appear to play a substantial role in maintaining rainfall in these interior countries.

The rainforests of Central Africa still cover a substantial area, although this expanse is declining. More than 70 percent of Africa's remaining rainforests are located in Central Africa, covering about 720,000 square miles (1.875 million square km). The bulk of this region's forests are found in the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Congo, and Gabon. Over the past decade, these forests have been threatened by masses of refugees fleeing rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the movement of local militias. Now that some form of peace has returned in most areas, logging and other development activities are expected to increase.


Sub-Saharan Africa has long been considered one of the poorest regions on earth despite its rich biological diversity and mineral wealth. The poor turn to the forests for subsistence agriculture, the collection of fuelwood, and the poaching of forest animals for food. The rapid population growth of the region—among the highest in the world—combined with high rates of urbanization have promoted these unsustainable activities by creating demand for bushmeat, fuelwood, and other forest products. Fuelwood makes up more than 8o percent of the total roundwood produced in the region.

On a commercial level, logging has greatly accelerated in Central Africa, much of it carried out by West African firms (Côte d'Ivoire especially) in the early 1990s which had largely cut through their own forests. However the situation changed rapidly in the mid-1990s after the January 1994 devaluation of the African (CFA) franc by 50 percent under the Structural Adjustment Program. Before devaluation, the difficulties of access, transport, and dealing with unstable governments, as well as the overvalued currency had made Central Africa a relatively expensive place to operate and slowed investment in timber industries. After devaluation, production costs fell and logging in the Central African rainforests became more competitive. Additionally, in order to improve their own economic situation (devaluation is especially hard on the poor since goods become relatively more expensive in their currency), many poor farmers cleared new fields from forests to plant higher-yielding crops that require the nutrients released by freshly slashed-and-burned forest. In the past few years, logging has skyrocketed as European and Asian timber firms (facing restrictions in their homelands from years of overharvesting) have moved into the region. Between 1990 and 1997, the volume of timber exported annually from countries of the Congo basin increased ten-fold to two million cubic meters. Though Asians only entered the African timber market in 1995, already the greatest demand for African wood comes from the Far East. For example, 85 percent of timber production in Gabon now goes to Asia. During 1996 alone, Asian timber firms gained control of 10-12.5 million acres (4-5 million ha) of rainforest in Central Africa. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 had a major impact on timber production and log prices in Central Africa. Today, European and Asian firms are particularly active in Central Africa.

Logging roads are opening vast areas of forest to colonists and poachers. Numerous infrastructure projects have been initiated by foreign companies. One major French aid agency that works in the region boldly states that its development projects only finance infrastructure necessary to French timber interests. The new government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) is working on several large infrastructure contracts with South Africa to open up the forests for mineral and timber development. China has invested in infrastructure projects in several African nations.

The inflow of foreign firms does not necessarily bring benefits to most poor farmers and colonists. Though in many areas these industries provide the only form of work for these people, pay is menial and jobs are temporary. After the firm has exhausted the forest of its resources, it moves on, leaving a community that had become dependent on the firm for employment. Settlers then may burn surrounding forest lands, now degraded, for short-term, subsistence agriculture. In addition, most timber leaves the country as raw logs since export laws, like environmental regulations, are poorly enforced. Thus, the country does not maximize its potential benefits that could be derived from timber processing and the export of value-added goods like furniture. Finally, it is only a privileged few who generally share in the spoils of logging, oil, and mining. Virtually no benefits are returned to the people who are most impacted by development projects. Corruption is a major problem in many of these countries: Nigeria and Cameroon were recently rated among the most corrupt in the world. Post-colonial kleptocratic governments "produced by strong-man rule have proved uniformly inept, with a partial exception for pillage . . . [Most] foreign aid ends up in numbered accounts abroad" (Landes, 1998).


The outlook for Central and West Africa's rainforests is not promising. Many countries have agreed in principle to conventions on biodiversity and forest preservation, but in practice these concepts of sustainable forestry are not enforced. Most governments lack the funds and technical know-how to make these projects a reality, and "paper parks" are common. Funding for most conservation projects comes from foreign sectors and 70-75 percent of forestry in the region is funded
by external resources. Additionally, high population growth rates combined with rural poverty make it difficult for the government to control local subsistence clearing and hunting. Equally challenging are the tremendous debt obligations facing the governments of these countries. Already terribly poor (16 of the world's 20 poorest countries are in Africa), by 2002 African countries with tropical rainforest had accumulated a foreign debt of more than US$200 billion, an almost insurmountable sum considering the low annual GDPs of most member countries. The easiest, most expedient way for such governments to service these debt payments is to sell their forest products and resources.

Nevertheless, there is hope for Africa's remaining rainforests. The Asian economic slow-down has provided precious time for African nations to reexamine their forestry policies. Various government agencies, NGOs, conservation organizations, and private industries have developed innovative schemes to incorporate locals into the sustainable management of rainforests. These community management programs show potential, but thus far represent only a minuscule fraction of forest land. Recently several organizations including the U.N. have put pressure on African governments to abandon tax incentives for practices that encourage deforestation, but provide virtually no return to most African people. In addition, the region, with its biodiversity and varied landscapes, has excellent potential for eco-tourism, though it is stymied by poor infrastructure and concerns over political stability, health, and safety. Finally, the region's biological wealth offers tremendous potential for bioprospecting for potentially useful drugs, food products, and other non-wood forest products.

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Unless otherwise specified, this article was written by Rhett A. Butler [Bibliographic citation for this page]

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Last updated: 4 Feb 2006

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