Africa's rich and diverse forest ecosystems are in danger of collapsing, risking ecological stability globally.
The word “deforestation” is one that will be familiar to anyone who pays attention to the growing climate debate. Self-evident in the name, deforestation is the decrease in forest areas around the world for the purpose of agriculture, urbanization, or industrialization. Basically, it is the loss of forest cover.
Some may argue that there is nothing wrong with the idea of leveling a forest for the sake of a new palm tree plantation, or for the sake of mining, or for building new roads, and highways, or expanding a city. After all, all these things are economically useful. A new mine brings revenue to the government; a felled tree will produce anything from furniture to paper; new roads will connect cities and create a thriving economic ecosystem. However, there are other ecosystems that matter just as much and if not more to life on earth than those bound to the gross domestic product.
The Importance of Forests
Forests are a major source of biodiversity on earth. It is estimated that as many as 80% of all plant and animal life on earth can be found living in forests, with biologists suggesting that they are home to many yet-undiscovered species. Entire biological ecosystems exist within forests, with dense and complex food chains. From tiny animals like fire ants to giants like tree boas and gorillas, a lot of animals depend on forests for everything from food to shelter from the elements.
Human beings also rely on forests, with the United Nations estimating that up to 1.6 billion people are directly dependent on forests for their livelihoods. Forests are still home to millions of people from the Amazon to the Congo and Indonesia, with many hunter-gatherer and silvopastoral societies. Healthcare has benefitted greatly from forests, as a lot of medicine including popular drugs such as aspirin and quinine have been discovered in the bark of trees.
Forests may matter the most to us presently for the role they play in protecting the global ecology. They regulate the impacts of floods by controlling soil erosion due to the deep roots of trees making soil stronger. Unsurprisingly, many of the recent cases of flooding are occurring in places with little to no forest cover. Forests are crucial for air quality, as the absorbent nature of leaves acts as a natural cleaner of air systems. They also contribute to the regulation of the water cycle in terms of both quantity and quality, as forests can hold within them massive amounts of moisture that serve to prevent drought. Furthermore, trees are essential in controlling climate change as they absorb CO2 through the natural photosynthetic process, preventing it from going up into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. It is for this phenomenon that forests are commonly referred to by ecologists as carbon sinks.
Causes of deforestation
Human activities are greatly accelerating deforestation, negatively impacting natural ecosystems, the climate, and biodiversity. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates the annual rate of deforestation to be around 1.3 million square kilometers per decade or an estimated 10 million hectares per year.
Most deforestation is due to commercial agriculture, from crops like palm oil, rice, and maize to livestock farming. Livestock farming is particularly land-intensive as large swathes of forest are cleared to not just rear livestock but to grow its food. Constructions are also a major source of deforestation, with new infrastructure responsible for as much as 15%. Highways, railways and airports often demand the clearing of forests. Energy and mining infrastructure, often cited away from residential areas, also contributed to deforestation.
Finally, while it contributes little now, the rapid expansion of cities will lead to urbanization becoming a major source of deforestation in the future. In areas where it is possible, cities will expand outward, pushing natural boundaries and turning forests of trees and leaves into those of concrete and glass.
The African Forests
Africa has a rich forest zone, a belt of tropical forests stretching across most of Africa’s equatorial zone. This zone, technically referred to as the Guinean-Congolian region is a tropical, lowland area that receives enough rain every year to maintain dense forests all year round. The zone consists of the Upper Guinean forests in West Africa, to the Lower Guinean forests that extend from Benin to the Congo Basin, which is Africa’s largest forest zone and the second largest forest basin in the world after the Amazon.
By percentage of land mass covered in forests, four of the five largest forest-covered countries in Africa lie within the Guinean-Congolian region. Gabon, which lies in the Lower Guinean region east of the Dahomey Gap has a massive 91.3% of its landmass covered in forests, per the World Bank. Following Gabon is Equatorial Guinea, with 87.3% of the country’s area is forests. Liberia (79.1%) and Guinea-Bissau (70.4%) follow. Seychelles, an archipelago of islands on the Indian Ocean, is 73.3% of its land forested.
It must be noted that these are not the countries with the largest forest areas in Africa; they have the largest share of their land covered with forests. Several African countries house much larger forests. The Congo Basin is home to both the world’s second-largest river by volume (the Congo) and the world’s second-largest rainforest. The Congo Basin is so large that six of the countries commonly associated with the basin are in the top ten counties with the largest forest areas in Africa.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a massive country that contains up to 126 million hectares of forests, Angola boasts 66.6 million hectares of forests, Gabon (23.5 million hectares), the Central African Republic (22.3 million hectares), the Republic of Congo (21.9 million hectares), and Cameroon (20.3 million hectares) all lie within the Congo Basin. The Congo rainforest has incredible levels of biodiversity, with more than 600 tree species and up to 10,000 animal species living within the ecosystem.
Other countries outside the Guinean-Congolian region possess great forests. In South-Central Africa, Zambia is home to numerous rivers and lakes, including two of Africa’s major rivers: the Congo and the Zambezi. Part of the country falls within the Congo Basin and the Zambezi basin covers the country’s center, west, and south. As a result, a year-round tropical climate is created which is the source of the country’s 44.8 million hectares of forest.
The Eastern African countries of Tanzania and Mozambique also boast major forest systems. Tanzania’s highland closed forests and its coastal mangrove forests make up its 45.7 million hectares of forest area. Mozambique’s Indian Coast is covered in deltas from its many rivers draining into the Indian Ocean, also creating the conditions which have led to 36.7 million hectares of forests.
Dangers of Deforestation in Africa
Africa’s forests are in danger from the twin actions of climate change and deforestation. The FAO estimates that between 2010 and 2020, Africa lost as much as 3.9 million hectares of forests a year. Deforestation is often due to both subsistence and commercial agriculture. Several West African countries depend on agricultural exports for revenue generation, with crops such as rubber, cocoa, and palm being lucrative. Trees are also cut down for commercial timber, and replanting is not a widespread practice. Rural households will also fell trees for both building materials and firewood, which remains a major energy source in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, West African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, and Liberia are losing vast portions of their forest cover yearly.
In East Africa, irregular weather patterns have led to major droughts in the Horn of Africa and other Rift Valley countries. These have often impacted the rivers which create the climate that allows forests to thrive. The absence of forests leads to harsher dry seasons, causing a negative feedback loop. Over-exploitation of timber resources is also a cause for concern in the Congo Basin, as well as massive agricultural expansion and mining. The continent’s growing population is creating a scenario where more forests must be brought down for infrastructure and agriculture. Poor land control and management have also led to unsustainable farming practices, as well as illegal mining and logging.
The continent is losing a lot of its famously diverse biodiversity. More animals that depend on Africa’s forests are going extinct or are presently critically endangered, as the continent bears the brunt of the present mass extinction. Crucially, the loss of Africa’s forests is a hazard to all human life as the earth will lose perhaps its greatest asset in the fight against climate change. Africa’s forests have been referred to as the earth's lungs due to the massive amounts of carbon they absorb from the atmosphere. Lose that, and we create a vicious feedback loop: less rainfall and more heat lead to dying forests which lead to less rainfall and more heat. It is imperative that African governments act now to preserve their forests.