Oil exploration in a rainforest, Gabon
Arnaud Greth /Still Pictures
Central Africa's high and reliable rainfall supports extensive forest cover throughout the sub-region, with the exceptions of the northern part of Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic. Forests and woodlands cover, in total, about 45 per cent of the land area of Central Africa, and constitute 37 per cent of Africa's total forest cover (FAO 2001a). Most countries in the sub-region are therefore well endowed with forests, with Gabon having the greatest cover (85 per cent), and Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Equatorial Guinea having over 50 per cent. The exception is Chad, which, because of its northerly location and arid environment, has only 10 per cent forest cover (FAO 2001a). Tropical forests are the predominant type in the sub-region, namely lowland evergreen broadleaf rainforest, montane forests, freshwater swamp forests. Savanna cover is also significant in the northern parts of Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Chad and southern DRC.
The major issue of concern in Central Africa is rapid deforestation, mainly for commercial timber exports. The damage caused to remaining forest areas by timber extraction is an additional concern for the sub-region.
Dense, tropical forests provide essential ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, water and soil protection, and exchange of atmospheric gases (absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen). The tropical, moist forest of Central Africa comprises the second largest contiguous area of tropical forest in the world, and thus plays a very important role in atmospheric carbon sequestration and mitigation of potential climate change. Other benefits of forests include the extremely high levels of biodiversity, which has enormous untapped potential for agricultural, pharmaceutical and nutritional applications. There are five regional hotspots in Cameroon, noted for their plant species richness and presence of endemic bird species.
Commercial logging is the primary source of revenue from Central Africa's forests. This is mainly carried out by foreign logging companies and thus ensures substantial amounts of foreign exchange for the countries of the sub-region. Cameroon, for example is one of Africa's leading producers and exporters of sawn timber and tropical logs, and ranks fifth in the world (FAO 2001a, WRI 2001). In 1998, its exports exceeded US$436 million, approximately 5 percent of GDP (FAO 2001a, World Bank 2001). In the same year, Equatorial Guinea exported US$62 million of wood-based panels, representing 14 per cent of its GDP (FAO 2001a, World Bank 2001).
Central Africa's forest ecosystems are also home to a large number of communities from an estimated 250 ethnic groups (WRI 2001). These communities depend on wild and cultivated resources from forests, including bark, vegetables, fruits, flowers, honey, resins, fungi, medicinal plants and wildlife for local consumption as well as for export. Inter-cropping or agroforestry practised within these communities is a vital source of vegetables, grains and fruit, for use by households or for trade. The forests also offer opportunities for tourism, which would generate foreign exchange and stimulate rural development, although these are largely untapped at present because of low levels of infrastructure and/ or conflict in Central African countries.