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Chapter 15. Central Africa

Figure 15-1. Central Africa: forest cover map

Central Africa[30] is an important forested subregion with approximately 57 percent of its area covered with natural forests. Central Africa contains the largest remaining contiguous expanse of moist tropical forest on the African continent and the second largest in the world (after the Amazon forest). This quasi-uniform forest cover encompasses Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Congo, the majority of Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as a small part of the Central African Republic (Figure 15-1). The Democratic Republic of the Congo is by far the largest country of this subregion, with more than 226 million hectares of land. Burundi and Rwanda are among the smallest countries of central Africa and the continent. An important characteristic of this subregion is the zonal climate distribution that induces a gradient of ecosystems and hence biodiversity. The lowland evergreen broadleaf rain forest (including swamp forests localized for the greater part in the eastern Congo and the western Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the semi-deciduous broadleaf forest dominate this subregion and count among the richest in Africa. The montane forests (Rwanda, Burundi, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) are of lower biodiversity but often have a greater number of endemic species (IUCN 1996). Central Africa also includes dry forests in the northern Central African Republic and Cameroon.

Central Africa is rich in natural resources, has played a large part in history and continues to play a role as a reservoir for the export of raw materials to the industrialized nations. In particular, wood and, more recently, petroleum are the main exports. The uses of the forest are multiple, including non-wood forest products collection, and vary from low-impact harvesting to high-intensity commercial logging. Central Africa is not a uniform political or socio-economic entity: more than 70 percent of the population in central Africa is rural, although Gabon and the Congo are the most urbanized. Population densities in certain regions are among the lowest in Africa. However, Rwanda and Burundi are very densely populated, with 90 percent of their population living in rural conditions. In general, central African countries are among the poorest in the world, with the exception of Gabon (FAO 2000).

Table 15-1. Central Africa: forest resources and management


Land area

Forest area 2000

Area change 1990-2000 (total forest)

Volume and above-ground biomass (total forest)

Forest under management plan

Natural forest

Forest plantation

Total forest

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha


ha/ capita

000 ha/ year




000 ha



2 568













46 540

23 778


23 858









Central African Republic

62 297

22 903


22 907










34 150

21 977


22 060









Dem. Rep. of the Congo

226 705

135 110


135 207










25 767

21 790


21 826









Equatorial Guinea

2 805

1 752


1 752










2 466












Total Central Africa

403 298

227 377


228 011









Total Africa

2 978 394

641 830

8 036

649 866



-5 262







13 063 900

3 682 722

186 733

3 869 455



-9 391






Source: Appendix 3, Tables 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9.
*Partial result only. National figure not available.

Forest resource knowledge is relatively low and most of the central African forest inventories cover only part of the productive forested domain (Cameroon, the Congo, Gabon, Rwanda and the Central African Republic). At the national level, the information regarding forest areas is obsolete where it exists at all and needs to be updated. The last national forest inventory of Burundi dates to 1976 and that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to 1982. The most recent national-level data are those of Equatorial Guinea (1992). Consequently, the figures presented in Table 15-1 are, for the most part, based on national expert estimates. A workshop was also organized in Gabon in 1999 on data collection for this subregion with participation from all central African countries (FAO 2000).

Central African forests represent the second largest area of rain forest in the world and constitute 35 percent of the African forest area as well as approximately 6 percent of the world forest cover. The Democratic Republic of the Congo contains more than 60 percent of the subregion's forest area. Gabon is the most forested country with 85 percent of its total land area covered by forests. Burundi and Rwanda have the lowest proportion of forest cover (4 and 12 percent, respectively). Despite the lack of accurate statistics, it is clear that the forests of the Congo basin have experienced relatively low annual rates of clearing compared to other tropical forests and compared to the whole of Africa. Nevertheless, they have been subjected to progressive degradation that is difficult to estimate. Burundi and Rwanda have the highest annual negative rates of forest area change while the Congo, the Central African Republic and Gabon present rates lower than or equal to -0.1 percent a year (Table 15-1, Figure 15-2). The largest areas cleared each year are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon.

Because central Africa contains such a large forest resource, reforestation efforts have been minimal. Also, these efforts have consisted primarily of commercial plantations rather than reforestation of logged-over or degraded areas. Approximately 634 000 ha of plantations have been established in central Africa with varying degrees of success. Many plantations in Cameroon, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have failed owing to lack of maintenance and poor management. Accurate statistics on plantation and reforestation rates are also lacking. Indeed, certain countries have stopped state control, causing national plantation expertise to wane slowly. More than half of the plantation area is located in Burundi and Rwanda because of an extensive plantation programme instituted between 1975 and the early 1990s (FAO 2000).

The quantity and quality of forest resources available represents considerable potential. In fact, the total volume of central African forests represents more than 60 percent of the total African volume and 7 percent of the entire world volume. Central African forest volume is estimated at 47 billion cubic metres over bark, which corresponds to an average of 127 m3 per hectare. In terms of biomass, the estimate is more than 44 billion tonnes because of the high wood density and a high percentage of branches that averages 194 tonnes per hectare. Central African forests come close to constituting two-thirds of the forest biomass reserves on the continent. Volume and biomass estimates for most central African countries are extracted from existing forest inventories (Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo). For the remaining countries, they are based on expert estimates (Burundi, Rwanda and Gabon) or extrapolation from nearby countries having comparable ecological characteristics (the Congo).

Biodiversity is exceptional in central Africa and the level of endemism is high. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, contains more than 11 000 plant species, of which more than 30 percent are endemic. More than 1 100 species of birds and 400 species of mammals are also found there (these last two figures are the highest in Africa) (Tchatat 1999). The central African dense forests have important timber potential owing, in part, to high-value commercial species, notably "redwood" species belonging mainly to the Meliaceae family. The main commercial species are, among others, okoumé (Aucoumea klaineana), limba (Terminalia superba), tiama (Entandrophragma angolense) and sapelli (Entandrophragma cylindricum). Nevertheless, removals are uniformly less than increment. Indeed, the rain forests, in spite of their species variety and the abundance of big trees, contain only a limited number of commercially marketable species and the exploitable trees are scattered. These two factors, combined with poor accessibility (lack of roads) and timber transportation problems make the harvest selective and much lower than the potentially exploitable volume. Also, depending on market conditions, the concessionaires often limit themselves to only the highest quality timber, which is mainly located in closed forests (Dupuy et al. 1999). Nevertheless, forest overexploitation increases with the needs of populations, which is the case in the montane forests of Burundi and Rwanda (FAO 2000).

Figure 15-2. Central Africa: natural forest and plantation areas 2000 and net area change 1990-2000

Wood from trees outside the forest is also important, notably where the natural forests are limited, as in Rwanda and Burundi, where agroforestry systems and small private plantations are encouraged to provide forest products (FAO 2000).


None of the countries in central Africa provided information on the forest area covered by a formal, nationally approved forest management plan (Table 15-1). Nevertheless, significant efforts have begun to establish the framework for field-level implementation of sustainable forest management practices in the subregion (FAO 2000). A recent ITTO study (Poore and Thang 2000) thus reported that Cameroon is one of only six ITTO tropical producer countries which appeared to have established all the conditions that make it likely that they can manage their forest management units sustainably.

All of the central African countries have adopted strategies and forest action plans that take into account their specific needs. Some of these policies are very recent (Gabon, Cameroon and the Central African Republic). Countries have also modified their forest laws and management regulations. However, some countries have delayed their execution because of political disturbances, economic difficulties or violent civil crises. Furthermore, the current technical, financial, political and institutional conditions are not favourable in most of the countries (FAO 2000; Dupuy et al. 1999).

Currently, most central African forests belong to the State, although some countries have maintained traditional land tenure rights (Gabon, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, for example). Forest management is entrusted to a public forestry department and forests are classified as production, protection or nature reserves according to their characteristics. Generally, the forestry administration is charged with the execution of forest conservation, reforestation and exploitation activities as well as forest inventories and the preparation and implementation of management plans. However, many forestry administrations in central Africa lack the resources needed to implement their functions effectively and administer large areas of forest at the national level (FAO 2000; CARPE 1996).

Forest management for timber exploitation is focused on the demarcation of concession areas and control of harvested volumes. Production forests are generally awarded to timber companies or individuals (i.e. concessionaires) under more or less long-term concession agreements (temporary harvest permits). In Gabon, a resource inventory and a forest management plan proposal are compulsory before any exploitation. In the Congo and Cameroon, the national forest estate has been divided into forest management units, each having (in principle) a sufficient area to feed an independent wood industry under coordinated resource use and management plans. Various projects have established sustainable management strategies for forest resources. Pilot projects for sustainable forest production also exist in Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Paper production is almost non-existent in the region. The exact contribution of the forestry sector to the state economy is not generally defined in the available statistics. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Burundi and Rwanda have insufficient forest resources to meet internal needs and imported products must supplement national production.

In central Africa, 65 million persons live inside or near forests (Aubé 1996) and depend on them for energy, food, medicines, etc. As elsewhere in Africa, forests are the main source of domestic energy. Around 80 percent of the population of Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo use fuelwood for their domestic energy needs. In Gabon and Rwanda, 80 to 94 percent of the total fuel consumption comes from woody biomass. However, in spite of its importance, few data are available because of the informal character of fuelwood collection. Non-wood forest products are also important in the life of the local people and are widely used. Game holds an essential place in the Congo basin (Tchatat 1999). There is little information on markets and consumption patterns. The few statistics available are from isolated studies.

Central African countries have legally established large forest areas under protection. Certain zones have remarkable plant and animal diversity and are generally protected (e.g. the national parks of Dja in Cameroon and Dzanga-Ndoki in the Central African Republic). There are a number of protected area projects managed by regional and national offices. There is considerable legislation relating to protected areas at national levels but a large percentage of it is out of date and, in many cases, sufficient resources and mechanisms to ensure effective implementation are lacking (FAO 2000; Fotso 1996). In 1997, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre estimated that there are about 83 legally protected areas covering about 5 percent of the total subregion lands (WCMC 1997).


Information about the forest resources of the eight central African countries is mostly based on national expert estimates. Forest inventory data are often unreliable, dated, obsolete, partial or unavailable. At present, data collection in central Africa is mostly done as part of forest management activities. Significant improvement in statistical data collection and analysis at the national level is needed for a better knowledge of forest resources.

All central African countries have adopted sustainable forest management policies. However, their implementation is generally poor because of lack of resources and institutional weaknesses. In addition, for some of these countries (Burundi, Rwanda, the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), political and social crises during the last decade have had negative effects on forest sustainability. Nevertheless, significant efforts have been undertaken by national scientific research units in each country to improve the technical and economical management of production forests (FAO 2000).

There are multiple causes of deforestation in central Africa. Some are direct (agriculture, urbanization, mining, etc.), others are indirect, such as socio-economic factors (population pressure, poverty, international market fluctuations, etc.) or political factors (political instability, etc.). The principal causes of deforestation in dense forests are agriculture (shifting cultivation and cash crops) and fuelwood harvesting, mostly in the high population density zones. Shifting cultivation can lead to drastic forest resource degradation if it is not managed in a sustainable way. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Burundi and Rwanda have the highest rates of rural population increase in the subregion. As a consequence, agriculture is one of the main causes of deforestation in these countries as opposed to Gabon and the Congo, which are more urbanized (CARPE 1996). Natural resources in peri-urban zones are subject to high pressure from urban area expansion and utilization for fuelwood and building materials (FAO 2000).

Commercial logging is selective in the highly forested countries of the subregion and leads mainly to forest degradation rather than deforestation. Degradation can lead to the depletion of commercial species in the short term. After several harvests, the dense forest is often degraded into an open forest sensitive to fire (although fires are usually more important on other wooded lands). In addition, construction of logging roads encourages people to settle and convert forested lands into agriculture (FAO 2000; Dupuy et al. 1999).

Migrant populations, because of economic, social or political reasons, have destroyed forests through settlement, uncontrolled logging and fire. This critical situation can lead to the destruction of infrastructure and to overall instability of the forestry sector. This was the case in Burundi and Rwanda during the last decade where most productive lands were converted to agriculture. Efforts to reforest degraded or clear-cut areas have begun in those two countries as well as the promotion of agroforestry practices (FAO 2000).

Popular participation in forest management planning and implementation has increased in central African countries. Some other important issues include strengthening forestry training institutions, conducting conservation awareness programmes for the public and carrying out long-term ecological research on the value of services provided by forests.


Aubé, J. 1996. Étude pour favoriser le développement des produits forestiers non ligneux dans le cadre du Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE). Washington, DC, Forestry Support Program, USAID.

Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE). 1996. CARPE workshop, Libreville, Gabon. Washington, DC, USAID.

Dupuy, B., Maître, H.-F. & Amsallem, I. 1999. Techniques de gestion des écosystèmes forestiers tropicaux: état de l'art. Working paper FAO/FPIRS/05 prepared for the World Bank forest policy implementation. Review and Strategy. FAO, Rome/ Montpellier, France, Cirad Forêt.

FAO. 2000. Collecte et analyse de données pour l'aménagement durable des forêts - joindre les efforts nationaux et internationaux. Proceedings of subregional workshop on forestry statistics. EC-FAO Partnership Programme GCP/INT/679/EC, subregional workshop for Congo Basin countries, Lambarene, Gabon, 27 September - 1 October 1999. Rome.

Fotso, C. 1996. Problématique de la conservation de la biodiversité en Afrique centrale. Cameroun, Conservation et utilisation rationelle des Ecosystèmes Forestiers d'Afrique Centrale (ECOFAC). CARPE Libreville. USAID.

IUCN. 1996. Atlas pour la conservation des forêts tropicales d'Afrique, ed. J.-P. de Monza. Paris.

Poore, D. & Thang, H.C. 2000. Review of progress towards the year 2000 objective. Report presented at the 28th Session of the International Tropical Timber Council ITTC(XXVIII)/9/Rev. 2, 24-30 May 2000, Lima, Peru. Yokohama, Japan, ITTO.

Tchatat, M. 1999. Produits forestiers autres que le bois d'œuvre (PFAB): place dans l'aménagement durable des forêts denses humides d'Afrique centrale. Projet régional de capitalisation et transfert des recherches sur les écosystèmes forestiers de l'Afrique humide. Série FORAFRI. Document 18.

WCMC. 1997. United Nations List of Protected Areas 1997.

[30] For more details by country, see

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