Throughout history, humankind has converted forests to agricultural land. But deforestation has recently become one of the most pressing global problems, as its impact on climate change, rural livelihoods, biodiversity loss and other environmental services provided by forests has begun to be understood.
Recent data tell us that tropical Africa has lost about 22 per cent of its forested area since 1900, which is comparable to the losses in the Amazon. But, to understand the causes and effects of deforestation in Africa today, it is important to note that there are huge differences between two broad types of forest: rainforest and dry forest.
Some challenges remain global in nature, but many solutions require local knowledge and understanding: the causes and consequences of deforestation in countries with dry forests like Burkina Faso or Niger are different to those faced in the rainforests of the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
This article briefly explains the history of deforestation in Africa, the changing causes of deforestation, its effects and how deforestation might be addressed in future.
When did deforestation in Africa start?
Large-scale exploitation of African forests went hand-in-hand with European colonization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when natural resources like timber, ebony and ivory began to be harvested and exported at unprecedented scales.
Throughout the 20th century, colonial powers granted themselves or private companies large swathes of forested lands in the form of concessions, with the rights to exploit natural resources in exchange for a share of the profits (and/or various obligations to govern and ‘develop’ the area).
In many cases, this meant eliminating the original forests for commercial crops, such as cocoa, coffee, palm oil, rubber and tea.
During the 1960s, as many African nations won independence, governments often maintained the concession model, passing on contracts to the same private companies or similar new ones. The objectives of those concessions varied in line with the chosen ‘development’ model.
Some such models actively promoted deforestation. Côte d’Ivoire, for example, lost 80 per cent of its forests between 1900 and 2021, as it aimed to become the world’s largest cocoa producer. Ghana followed a similar path.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s and 1980s, Kenya had so many sawmills that the activity was proudly displayed on its postal stamps. Only a handful of small sawmills exist in Kenya today, however, and the country’s new constitution aims to bring national forest cover back to a minimum of 10 per cent from almost complete destruction.
‘Development models’ did not always mean large-scale, export-oriented commodity production. The population of Africa has increased by over 1 billion since the first wave of decolonization and is expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050, with sub-Saharan Africa featuring the world’s highest fertility rate (at 4.7 births per woman).
Over time, the conversion of land for small-scale agriculture, aimed at sustaining millions of families, has emerged as a significant contributor to deforestation in many countries.
Liberia lost 12 per cent of its forest cover in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, and, since 2010, the DRC has never lost less than 500,000 ha of forest per year, recording a loss of 1.3 million ha in 2013 alone.
However, it is just as important to acknowledge the role of international trade and finance in medium- and large-scale clearings of forests, as well as the increasing financialization of land and forest resources. These factors cannot be disregarded when examining the root causes of deforestation, as they play a pivotal role in shaping land-use decisions.
Where does deforestation occur in Africa?
Deforestation is taking place all over the continent of Africa, wherever dry forests or rainforests exist.
The dry forests of West, East and Southern Africa are not discussed as much in the media today as the Congo basin rainforests in Central Africa, but they have historically experienced much bigger rates of deforestation, and remain just as important to the future of Africa.
Dry forests cover a greater area of the continent than rainforests, stretching across the Sahel region from Senegal to Somalia, and across regions like the Miombo forest in Southern Africa. They are not as dense as rainforests, but a relatively small tree must withstand harsher climate conditions and may have taken more than a century to reach its size prior to harvesting.
That means that the destruction of highly valuable commercial tree species in dry forest – like those grouped under the common name rosewood – at the rates seen in recent years is absolutely devastating. Once lost, the entire fragile ecosystem is permanently altered and hard to recover.
The greatest concentration of intact rainforest in Africa is found in the Congo basin, covering an area of around 2 million sq km across countries including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the DRC, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Republic of Congo. Over a quarter of these forests risk vanishing by 2050 if current deforestation rates persist.
Situated beneath the Congo basin, across the southern DRC, Zambia and Malawi, the Miombo dry forest covers an area of 2.7 million sq km. Here, deforestation led by small-scale shifting cultivation – the traditional, rotational farming method – and charcoal production is taking place at the rate of 1.27 million ha per year.
Causes of deforestation in Africa
There are both direct and indirect causes of deforestation in Africa. Direct causes include agriculture, infrastructure, mining and wood extraction – both for charcoal-making and logging.
These activities may occur in parallel or follow one another: once a road is cut into a forest or a field is cleared for farming, even if they serve legal operations, that route provides access deeper into the forest for all kinds of other activities that lead to more deforestation, and the cycle is repeated over and over.
Agriculture is the largest direct cause of forest loss, accounting for approximately 75 per cent of deforestation in Africa. This includes both subsistence farming and industrial agriculture – which includes cocoa and oil palm production – and cattle ranching.
Poverty, population growth and poor governance often fuel growth in subsistence agriculture, while industrial agriculture is driven by international market forces and large-scale land acquisitions.
The largest direct cause of deforestation in Africa currently is the clearing of forests to feed a growing population through shifting cultivation. This practice sees areas of primary forest felled and burned, with the land used for farming until the soil is depleted and can no longer be cultivated. The land is used again years later, once the soil has recovered part of its productive potential.
According to the IPCC, between 29 and 39 per cent of global deforestation is driven by international trade, primarily with Europe, China, the Middle East and North America. The increasing prominence of medium and large-scale clearings of forest in Africa is influenced by global markets and commodity imports.
Indeed, financialization – such as the correlation of commodity prices with stock-market dynamics – can have larger impacts on deforestation than those related to timber and agricultural commodity production dynamics.
Indirect causes include the socio-economic, environmental and trade conditions created by existing laws, regulations and norms – or their absence. A lack of clear rules on land tenure, weak sustainability provisions in trade agreements, or failure to support or incentivize sustainable agriculture, may for example lead to more destructive forms of forest exploitation, and ultimately to increase deforestation.
But the pressure of feeding a growing population is already making this rotation happen faster and faster, depleting soil more rapidly and creating demand to clear fresh areas of forest.
For instance, in the area around a town like Kisangani in the DRC, agricultural land that used to be rotated around every 12 years is now being reused every three or four years. The same pattern – of more and more intensive use of land – can be seen across the Congo basin and Miombo forest .
Improved farming methods and agroforestry technologies could help ease the pressure on land use, delivering better nutrition and crop yields. But most African governments have only recently put investment in agriculture and food security on top of their agendas, meaning that large parts of the continent are still struggling to move away from inefficient, inequitable and unsustainable land-use models.