AFRICA ENVIRONMENT OUTLOOK
Past, present and future perspectives

FOREST COVER AND QUALITY IN CENTRAL AFRICA

With resources of such enormous potential value and countries with such low levels of economic and social development, it is not surprising that Central Africa is exploiting forest resources and experiencing large-scale deforestation. Between 1990 and 2000, a total of 9 million hectares of forest were cleared, 4 per cent of the total area. The highest annual rates of deforestation were recorded in Cameroon (0.9 per cent), Chad, and Equatorial Guinea (0.6 per cent each), while insignificant rates were recorded in Gabon and Sao Tome & Principe (FAO 2001a). The main causes of deforestation are commercial logging (including illegal activities), clearing for commercial and subsistence agriculture, and fuel wood harvesting. The improved access to forest areas, created by roads constructed for timber trucks, not only fragments the forests but also facilitates exploitation by local communities and resettlement by refugees, who eventually introduce wildfire through their various life-sustaining activities. Previously inaccessible areas are also opened up to poachers and hunters whose activities threaten wildlife.

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Figure 2d.7: Logging concessions in Cameroon 1971 and 1995

Source:WRI 2001

By far the greatest threat to forests in the subregion is commercial logging and the unsustainable rates of harvesting practised by many companies. In Cameroon alone, the number of registered logging companies has more than quadrupled, increasing from 106 in 1980 to 479 in 1998 (see Figure 2d.7) (WRI 2001). In addition, weak protection regulations and lack of law enforcement have resulted in large numbers of logging violations, and logging concessions now encircle protected areas such as the Dja Forest Reserve, a World Heritage Site. Violations of forest regulations committed within concession areas include the felling of the wrong timber species, logging of protected species, and cutting of undersized trees. Unauthorized logging and logging within a protected area have also been recorded in Cameroon (WRI 2001). The need to encourage local milling and the recruitment of local skilled labour is vital in promoting joint conservation efforts.

Clearing of forests for agriculture and collection of fuelwood are other sources of forest loss and degradation in Central Africa. These pressures are set to increase over the next 20-30 years, driven by rapid population growth, poor social development, low employment opportunities, low-income levels, and lack of affordable alternative sources of energy.

The impacts of the various pressures on the subregion's forests are both positive and negative. Positive impacts include the creation of employment in the forestry sector, tax and other sources of revenue. These activities lead to more monetary exchange, the development of a road infrastructure for easier transportation and marketing of local produce, and thus the improvement of conditions for the local populations. On the other hand, the logging methods used and the scale on which they are applied exceed the natural regeneration capacity of the forests. In addition, the negative impacts of soil compaction and chemical pollution on the speed of natural regeneration could be significant. Commercial logging leaves gaps in the canopy that change the microclimate and thus species composition. In closed canopy forest, the regeneration rates are sufficiently high to close gaps relatively quickly. However, in the drier areas of Central Africa, where savanna is the predominant form of wooded vegetation, trees take much longer to grow back, and their removal therefore has a greater impact on the ecosystem. Loss of forest habitat also leads to loss of biodiversity which, in turn, reduces opportunities for commercial agricultural or pharmaceutical exploitation. Other negative impacts of forest degradation include soil degradation and reductions in productivity from agroforestry, susceptibility to alien invasive organisms, and disruption of hydrological systems. Local communities suffer by having to search further and further afield to collect wild resources such as fuelwood.