Secondary forests are diverse and complex and offer a wide range of benefits which may well surpass those from original forests, but their use is not well documented. The discussion to follow relates to primary forests that play a central role in the welfare of the society at local, national and global levels. Production of wood continues to be the major forest management goal, and constitutes an important source of revenue and employment. West and Central African countries are important industrial timber producers.
The biodiversity rich ecosystems produce a wide range of non-wood forest products including woodfuel accounting for 70 per cent of total energy used; food, fodder, genetic material, medicinal and other products (e.g. latex, gums, resins, oils), and bush meat from wildlife. Various oils, tanning materials, honey, spices, bark and leaves of medicinal plants and gum Arabic are important export commodities from the region. Recent work (FAO, 1995) highlighted the very important contribution of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in woodlands to the diets of communities who obtain them by gathering or by trade. Protein, minerals and vitamins, vital complements to carbohydrate-rich farm diets are drawn from the woodlands.
Forests and woodlands provide residence to communities of indigenous people, settlers, squatters and loggers. Most tropical dry forests support larger numbers of people and domestic animals than rainforests, but the sustainable density is still relatively low. The forests further provide a wide range of subsistence sources and use value to local communities on a daily basis, including a wide range of socio-cultural uses such as religious, spiritual, aesthetic appreciation and healing practices.
The vegetation also provide opportunities for recreation, hunting and environmental services. The forests with their panoramic richness provide habitats for wildlife and add value to hot-spot landscape features for the lucrative ecotourism industry, an important hard currency earner. Forests as trees in cropland help replenish soil fertility, sustain critical nutrient cycles, and moderate the climate. They protect fragile soils by intercepting rainfall and stilling wind velocities, facilitate nitrogen fixation, reduce high temperatures, moderate the hydrological cycle, stabilize watersheds, and act as carbon sinks. Forests serve as reservoirs, sinks and sources of greenhouse gases by storing carbon in biomass and soils and thus have a significant role in moderating the net flux of greenhouse gases between the land and the atmosphere.
Africa's forests also regulate the quantity and quality of water resources, lowering the evaporation that drains surface water and limiting siltation from watersheds. Mangroves, in particular, constitute an important habitat for the spawning of fish, shrimp, and prawns. Along the coastline throughout the continent, local protein intake is largely derived from off-shore fish and shrimp stocks. In many countries seafood surpasses terrestrial animals in terms of nationwide protein intake.