Southern Africa has a range of forest and woodland types that follow the rainfall distribution of the sub-region. The wetter, more northern parts of the sub-region support more closed canopy forest, whilst drier countries in the south have predominantly woodlands and savannas. The total forest and woodland area of Southern Africa amounts to 32.7 per cent of the sub-region's total area, and constitutes 34 per cent of all of Africa's forests (FAO 2001a). Angola has the highest forest cover with 56 per cent of the land area under forests; Lesotho has the lowest with less than 1 per cent (FAO 2001a). There are four forest and woodland types, namely deciduous broadleaf forests (temperate forest types), lower montane forest, mangroves, deciduous/semi-deciduous broadleaf forest, and savannas (tropical forest types). Southern Africa also has six regions of exceptional plant species diversity, and forest species are abundant in many of these (White 1983).
The major issues of concern in the forests of Southern Africa are degradation of forests and woodlands, and overexploitation of certain species, resulting in loss of ecosystem goods and services.
Forest products are a valuable source of export earnings and revenue throughout the sub-region, and the communities living in forest or woodland areas are highly dependent on forest products for meeting everyday food and energy needs. For example, in 1998, South Africa's exports of forest products totalled US$837 million, mainly from wood pulp and paper most of which was produced in plantation forests. Zimbabwe's exports were US$42 million, mainly from sawnwood (FAO 2001a). Forests and woodlands are important to local communities, mainly as a source of domestic fuel, either wood or charcoal. For example, about 80 per cent of Mozambique's population live in rural areas and depend on wood for cooking and for heating of water for domestic use, space heating and drying of foodstuffs. The charcoal industry generates about US$30 million annually, and is the sole source of income for about 60 000 people (Kalumiana 1998). Important non-wood forest products include honey, beeswax, bamboo, reeds, mushrooms, caterpillars, fodder, wild edible plants and fruits, leaves and bark for weaving, and resins. The medicinal plant trade is extensive and profitable in Southern Africa with approximately 3 000 species (10 per cent) of Southern African plants used medicinally and around 350 species commonly and widely used (van Wyk, Van Oudtshoorn & Gericke 1997). Other species harvested from the wild contribute as much as 40 per cent to household incomes (Cavendish 1999) or between US$200-1000 per year (Shackleton, Shackleton & Cousins 2000).