Africa's forest cover drops despite greater efforts to save trees

Thursday April 14 2022
A ranger disperses seeds at an indigenous forest destroyed by charcoal makers.

A ranger disperses seeds at an indigenous forest destroyed by charcoal makers. PHOTO | AFP


Forest cover in Africa is decreasing in spite of heightened awareness on their importance to climate. The losses from deforestation and widespread degradation are intensifying carbon loss from Africa’s tropical forests.

According to Marie Avana-Tientcheu, the African Forest Forum’s (AFF) senior programme officer at the people and climate change programme, FAO's Forest Resources Assessment published (2020) shows that Africa had the largest annual rate of net forest loss between 2010 and 2020, at 3.9 million hectares every year.

In 2020, Africa had 636,639,000 hectares representing 16 percent of the world’s forested areas. Some 46.5 percent is in eastern and southern Africa, 48 percent in western and central Africa, and 5.5 percent is in northern Africa.

Africa is the largest area with wooded land at 446 million hectares, including trees in urban settings, orchards, palms and agroforestry.

However, Africa’s forests are exposed to several threats. Top among them are wildfires, pests and diseases. At least 90 percent of these forests are naturally regenerated, and 10 percent are planted.

Since 1990, Africa has reported an increase in net loss from 3.28 million hectares per year in 1990, to 3.94 million hectares per year from 2010 to 2020.


“This means we’re using what naturally existed and doing little in planting or regenerating of these resources,” said Prof Avana-Tientcheu.

She was speaking at a workshop on challenges and opportunities of forest management for sustainable development in Africa in the context of climate change, organised by AFF, from March 28 to April 1, in Mombasa.

In reverse

According to Fredrick Owino, a forest scientist, African countries are going backwards in terms of their forest estates.

“For example, in Kenya, we lose 50,000 hectares of forest cover per year and replace that with less than that amount,” he said.

Of the overall threats, Prof Avana-Tientcheu said, wildfires consumed over 29 percent of forests between 2001 and 2018, and insects are affecting 37 percent. Degradation accounts for 28 percent or 1.8 million hectares of losses.

“We have four countries in Africa among the top 10 with high average annual net loss globally. DR Congo is second globally and is losing more than one million hectares, Angola is fourth at more than 555,000 hectares lost. Tanzania is fifth with 421,000 hectares of forest loss annually, and Mozambique 10th with 223,000 hectares annual loss,” she said.

Africa is also the region with the least share of planted forest at two percent globally. Egypt and Libya have 100 percent of planted forest. Rwanda has 54 percent of its forest planted.

Deforestation or conversion of forest to other land uses, such as agriculture and infrastructure, has also increased — from 4.096 million hectares per year from 1990 to 2000, to 4.314 million hectares per year from 2000 to 2010, and 4.43 million hectares per year in from 2010 to 2020. The highest annual deforestation rate worldwide in 2015 to 2020 was in Africa at 4.41 million hectares, 50 percent of which was observed in eastern and southern Africa at 2.2 million hectares per year, followed by central and western Africa at 1.9 million hectares per year.


“The area in Congo is still providing industrial logs to Europe, China and America. Deforestation there is due to over-exploitation of timber and illegal logging. The other factor is agricultural expansion, which accounts for 90 percent of the degradation of the Congo Basin,” said Prof Avana-Tientcheu. “Mining and urbanisation are also coming up strongly.”

Lizzie Mujuru, a forest researcher from Bindura University of Science Education in Zimbabwe, said they observed mangrove forests are under threat from aquaculture, firewood and charcoal.

“After fishing, the fishermen dry their catch using firewood and charcoal from the mangroves,” she said.

Africa has shown an improvement in the conservation of mangroves over the past decade with the average annual rate of loss of mangrove dropping from 6,610 hectares in 1990 to 2000, to 2,330 hectares in 2010 to 2020.

According to Prof Owino, Africa’s bane is its increasing population, a good number of whom are forest-dependent for survival.

Among the usual forest goods and services such as ecosystem services that forests provide, including climate regulation, flood control, pollution abatement, fresh water supply, and soil protection, Africa’s forests. Africa’s tropical forests are well known for their role as the “lungs” of the planet. Through photosynthesis, the trees in these forests remove enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen in the process helping to mitigate global warming.

AFF’s senior programme officer, Sidzabda Djibril Dayamba, said, “It is estimated from the forest cover losses we’re losing carbon stocks from our forests. From 1990-2020, eastern and southern Africa have lost about 15 percent of the carbon stored in their forests, the current amount from 2020 is 26.25 billion tons of carbon, and western and central Africa have lost 14 percent and the current value for that area (as of 2020) is 52.546 billion tonnes of carbon.”

AFF’s Executive Secretary, Prof Godwin Kowero, said key among the problems facing African forests at the governance level is the lack of proper funding and management plans. He said many African countries had also not taken inventory of their forest cover.

But based on periodical data collected by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), where countries report the status of their forests, Prof Kowero says Africa has about 10 countries that have more than 50 percent tree cover, five countries have over 70 percent forest cover like Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Seychelles. In total, close to 45 countries on the continent have at least 10 percent forest cover.

The continent has about nine countries that have less than 10 percent forest cover.