The vast majority of Africa's tropical moist and tropical rainforests exist in West and Central Africa. However,
those are rapidly vanishing; according to the FAO, Africa lost the highest percentage of rainforests during the
1980s of any biogeographical realm, a trend that continued from 1990-1995.
Around the turn of the century, West Africa had some 193,000 sq. miles (500,000 sq. km) of coastal rainforest.
However, 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 FAO 1997, only 22.8% 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 of forests, while other countries like
Cote 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 is rapidly declining. 70% of Africa's
remaining rainforest in Central Africa, covering about (2 million square km). The bulk of this region's remaining
forests are found in the Congo Basin in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Congo. Recently these forests
were increasingly threatened by masses of refugees fleeing rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
and the movement of local militias.
Sub-Sahara Africa has long been considered one of the poorest regions on earth despite its rich biological 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-the highest in the world-combined with high
rates of urbanization promoted these unsustainable activities by creating demand for bushmeat, fuelwood, and other
forest products. The consumption of fuelwood made up 88% of the total roundwood produced in 1994 in the region.
On a commercial level, logging has greatly accelerated in Central Africa, much of it carried out by West African
firms (Ivory Coast especially) which have largely cut through their own forests. However the situation changed
rapidly in the mid-nineties after the January 1994 devaluation of the African (CFA) franc by 50% under the Structural
Adjustment Program. Prior to 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 peasants cleared new fields from
forests to plant higher-yielding crops that require the nutrients released by freshly slashed-and-burned forest.
There is fear that another devaluation will occur with Europe's adoption of the Euro currency. In the past few
years, logging had 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 has increased ten-told 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% 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. 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. Currently
no FSC certified timber comes out of Africa.
The inflow of foreign firms do not necessarily bring benefits to peasants 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 extraction
firm has exhausted the forest of its resources, it moves on leaving a community 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, small economic circles of the economic elite share the vast
majority of benefits from logging, oil, and mining, and virtually no benefits are returned to the people who are
impacted the most 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).
Tropical Deforestation in Africa, 1990-2000
[Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.: The State of the World's Forests 2003]
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. Numerous innovative schemes to incorporate local
peoples into the sustainable management of rainforests have been devised by various government agencies, NGOs,
conservation organizations, and private industries. These community management programs show potential, by thus
far only represent a miniscule fraction of forest land. Recently several organizations including the UN 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 ecotourism, 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 NWFPs.