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By Mirjam Kuzee, Forestry Department - FAO


Secondary forests are increasingly prominent features in tropical landscapes, and in several countries the surface area covered by them is far greater than that of natural forests. In Africa there may be as much as 9010 million to 313.3 million ha11 of secondary forest; this estimate depends on the definition used. Other estimates indicate that the `potentially productive' secondary tropical forest in Africa may be as large as 379.8 million ha, of which 57 percent would be the result of cut over forest and the rest of forested fallow.

Secondary forests provide a variety of products and services that can contribute to poverty alleviation, improving socio-economic conditions particularly in rural areas, protection of watershed areas, combating soil run-off and erosion, as well as extraction of commercially valued timber and NWFPs. Furthermore, if secondary forests are managed well they can relieve the pressure on remaining primary forest, thereby effectively conserving biodiversity and genetic resources. More recently we have also become aware that secondary rather than primary forests sequester carbon from the atmosphere, a concept that is much discussed in climate conventions around the world.

In order to realise the potential of secondary forests they need to be managed in a sustainable manner. Unfortunately the management of this resource has received insufficient attention at local, national and international levels. More focus is needed on the socio-economic factors responsible for secondary forest formation, the interactions of secondary forests with other land-use types (farmers' crop and livestock production systems), and the environmental benefits this resource can provide. Particularly the translation to well formulated policies backed by adequate legal regulations and a supportive institutional framework is needed.

It is within this context that the workshop on "Tropical Secondary Forest Management in Africa: realities and perspectives", was held in Nairobi 9-13 December 2002. Prior to the workshop nationals of each of the 15 sponsored countries prepared a country paper, which were discussed at the workshop. The papers were written based on a set of terms of reference provided to the authors.

The objective of this paper is to present some major observations from the fifteen country reports, which were written by national experts in forest management. It tries to bring to the foreground general differences and similarities on the concept of secondary forests in Anglophone African countries, and the socio-economic and ecological aspects perceived by the authors. The current management practices and future potential are discussed as well as the political and institutional issues governing the sustainable management of this resource in the region. This paper does not pretend to be comprehensive nor to summarize and reflect the full content of all the country papers. Its content is the full responsibility of the organizing committee.

Findings and discussions

1. The concept of secondary forests

There exists considerable ambiguity and confusion on the concept of secondary forests within and between the country papers. Many different descriptions of secondary forests were given and there were discrepancies in the types of forest considered secondary. The terms "degraded" or "disturbed" were interchanged loosely and easily replaced by the term "secondary".

Disparities in perceptions of secondary forest are perhaps greatest between the moist/wet countries and drier regions. Natural high forests have often been converted to woodlands due to intensive grazing and/or wildfires. Woodlands have in turn given way to grass, bush or shrub lands with only few remaining trees. In drier regions these formations are the most common. It is debatable if, in particular, grass, shrub and bush land should be regarded as (potential) forest land. Moreover, grazing in combination with fire has led to this semi-stable fire-adapted vegetation. It is not clear if these areas will revert to secondary forests if left to recover. Forest succession is characterised by mainly spontaneous regeneration and is by definition a redeveloping or regenerating forest. Due to the continued grazing and wildfires in wood, bush, shrub and grass-lands, the above does not apply to these vegetation types. In the wetter regions plantations are more commonly found. Managed plantations are not considered to be secondary forest, except when they are abandoned and/or spontaneous regeneration takes place. The same applies to reforestation activities, in those cases where for example planted pioneer species are continually thinned and replaced in a directed manner by planted late successional species. There is continual manipulation of the vegetation in these areas with little or no room for spontaneous regeneration.

Another characteristic of secondary forests - as pointed out in the country papers - was that the original forest vegetation was significantly disturbed. The term "significant" needs further clarification. In the most extreme case, one considers that all forests are being used to some extent, therefore they are disturbed, leading to degradation and ultimately all these forests are regarded to be secondary. However, the harvesting of NWFPs does not usually result in major changes in forest structure or canopy species composition as compared to neighbouring logged-over forests. Naturally that depends on the intensity of harvesting and the nature of the product. Also traditional methods of hunting do not usually lead to great changes in forest structure or species composition. Sacred forests and taboos over forests have been effective in conserving them but generally do not fall into the category of secondary forests.

Overall the main causes for secondary forest formations in the drier regions of Francophone Africa appear to be grazing, fire, and fuel wood harvesting; in the wetter regions these formations are generally due to shifting cultivation and destructive and unplanned timber exploitation. Other agents that were mentioned in the country papers are elephants and natural causes (droughts).

The total area of secondary forests in most developing countries is largely unknown, as is the area per vegetation type. Inventories with specific reference to this resource are few, perhaps due to the relative new concept of secondary forests. In those countries where forest inventories are available, they are often outdated and not applicable anymore. An additional problem is the highly fragmented landscapes also found in most African countries. Within a forest area different patches were often used by one family or small communities for various purposes (cocoa plantations, agriculture, harvesting of NWFPs, etc). These areas tend to be just several hectares large, making it difficult to discern the boundaries between one vegetation type and another, particularly if abandoned some years ago. Moreover, the nature of fragmentation itself leads to overall degradation of the forest due to the large ratio of forest margin to forest area. A small primary forest patch in this fragmented landscape may also have characteristics of secondary forests.

2. Socio-economic and ecological importance of secondary forests

The products and services of secondary forests are deemed particularly beneficial to rural communities. Rural livelihoods depend on this resource for many reasons. In drier areas scarcity of fuel wood was frequently mentioned, and the re-sprouting and coppicing abilities of many secondary forest species are highly valued, not just for subsistence use but also as a commercial product, whether as raw material or in the form of charcoal. In some countries of the region up to 75 per cent of fuel wood comes from secondary forests (e.g. Ghana). Perhaps most important, throughout countries in Africa there are a multitude of NWFPs derived from succession vegetation, particularly those products used for traditional medicine. Medical facilities are often far from rural communities and they depend on the leaves, bark, weedy species and herbs gathered by traditional healers. Some of these products tend to be more readily found in secondary than primary forests. Secondary forests are also valued for their agricultural potential after fallow, due to improved soil characteristics and fertility. For proteins many rural communities rely on bush meat. Although some species have disappeared with the primary forests, others have increased their numbers as they thrive better in secondary forests. However, the problem of bush meat is a much-discussed issue at the moment and the need to manage this resource sustainably is crucial.

With the disappearance of primary natural forests, logging companies have also come to rely on secondary forests for timber exploitation. In some countries up to 70 per cent of the exported timber is extracted from secondary forests, enhancing the economic importance of this resource in generating foreign exchange earnings. Unfortunately timber harvesting is often still conducted in a destructive manner, leading to the further degradation of secondary forests. Although some logging companies have realised the need for reforestation, enrichment planting, and improved harvesting techniques, the area destroyed still far exceeds the area restored.

The ecological importance of secondary forest is not often mentioned though some references are made to the potential for watershed management (protection), carbon sequestration and relieving pressure on primary forests, thereby aiding in the conservation of biodiversity and genetic resources.

One of the more serious problems reported related to the management of secondary forests is the growing demand for agriculture and grazing lands. With increasing population pressure, secondary forests tend not to be utilised in a sustainable manner. Fallow periods are progressively shorter, resulting in the depletion of soil nutrients, and high incidence of unpalatable grasses and other undesirable species. Invasive species that are highly competitive often inhibit regeneration and may arrest succession. This phenomenon is more frequently encountered at present and prohibitively expensive measures are often needed to restore these areas. Consequences of over grazing are much the same and preventive measures are needed. The existing conflicts between different land users are an additional hindrance to combating further degradation of secondary forests.

3. Current management practices of secondary forests

The general consensus in Anglophone Africa is that secondary forests are not consciously managed, although there are some exceptions. Particularly for post abandonment secondary forests no management activities were mentioned in the country papers. These areas are often abandoned due to changing economic incentives (e.g. inflation of cocoa and coffee prices), invasion of unpalatable species, depletion of soil nutrients, or lack of human resources. Small communities or families own most of these areas, and when there is not sufficient manpower to tend to the crops, they are abandoned for undefined periods. The vegetation is left to regenerate, usually without any intervention, until the land is again brought under cultivation. In the case of cocoa and coffee productions systems, some large canopy trees are left to provide shade for the crops. These areas are at an advantage over those that are completely cleared and subsequently burned, as is done for food crops and grazing.

The management of grassland and woodlands is mainly directed at the grazing potential. A continuous fire regime imposed on these areas drastically changes the vegetation, and few efforts are made to restore these areas. Most young thin stems of trees in secondary forests are very vulnerable to fire and therefore fire interferes with natural regeneration. There are some cases where fire prevention strategies have been developed (e.g. planting of fire resistant species) in watershed areas or for other protection services.

Logging companies are becoming more aware that in order to sustain the levels of production in the long term, intensively logged over areas need to be replanted. This is either done by complete reforestation of the areas or by enrichment planting, often using only desirable commercial species. The management of secondary forests depends in this case largely on the duration of the logging concession, and the availability of other exploitable land.

However, according to some of the papers there are several countries that actively manage degraded and secondary forests. In these countries the forests are mostly state owned and laws forbid any activity in these areas until the vegetation is deemed sufficiently recovered. Degraded sites are left fallow and regenerate spontaneously, or enrichment planting is done. Other examples include logging bans for a specified period in years.

Although country papers reported that limited activity is taking place on secondary forest management, it is important to realise that this could be based on the limited information available to authors. There seems to be little exchange of information on this topic between NGOs, the private sector, government institutions, forestry services, research institutes and local people on a national level. Other available literature suggests that NGOs and research institutes are very much active in secondary forest management in a large number of African Anglophone countries (Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, and Tanzania). Apparently the information is not translated to practical guidelines for management or the information is not shared with other stakeholders for a variety of reasons (e.g. technical, logistical, and commercial).

4. Future management of secondary forests

The view that management of this resource should be an integral part of the conservation and sustainable use of natural forests is widely supported and demonstrated in the country papers. However, the management of secondary forests requires different guidelines and principles than those of natural forests, especially where recovery of the vegetation is slow or inhibited.

The most frequently mentioned strategy for the management of secondary forests is that of enrichment planting. This is based on the view that only through enrichment planting can secondary forests provide the products needed by all stakeholders as well as having protection services and nature values. Moreover, reforesting large areas is often too expensive and may lead to monodominant stands often prone to pests and diseases and of poor performance. In the long term enrichment planting with desirable timber species may be the only way forward for logging companies.

Species that re-sprout or coppice easily can be encouraged under this system to provide fuel wood and construction poles in rural areas. Other frequently mentioned products that may be planted in succession vegetation are fruit trees (e.g. wild mango's), other trees of which leaves, fruits and seeds are used for consumption and harvesting of NWFPs, crops (e.g. cocoa, coffee, banana, palm oil) and others (e.g. yam, cassava). These products are important on a subsistence and commercial level. Particularly the option of income generating products from succession vegetation is stressed as highly significant in poverty alleviation. The setting up of small businesses is important to add value to these products harvested from stands. At the same time the redeveloping forest protects and replenishes the soil, provides a home to animals, may be combined with watershed management, and is important for its nature value (e.g. biodiversity, tourism). Other management strategies include the intensifying of agriculture, for example through the re-distribution of manure whilst secondary products from agriculture are used for fodder. In the country papers the so-called taungya, farm-systems and garden fallow systems were often referred to in this respect.

Due to the continued degradation of secondary forests many areas are ultimately abandoned owing to the invasion of unpalatable species (weedy climbers, lianas, Chromolaena odorata) and depletion of soil nutrients. The need exists for implementation of cost-effective mechanisms to facilitate and direct the recovery process of these areas into potentially productive secondary forests.

Furthermore, conflicts with other forms of land use are apparent. Mining is perhaps the most important cause of deforestation in several countries in Anglophone Africa. Revenues of mining activities exceed those derived from forests and as a consequence the forestry sector is the "weaker" one. Agriculture is the highest or second highest foreign exchange earner in most countries and likewise may be one of the principal causes for the increase in deforestation and degradation rates. Strengthening of the forestry sector is essential if solutions to these conflicts are to be found. The general view is that revenues of (secondary) forests need to be increased, through, for example, improved logging techniques (national scale), small scale enterprises (local scale) and needs to be backed by appropriate policies and a sound institutional framework.

5. Institutional and political issues governing the management of secondary forests

The most conspicuous issue from the country papers were the variety of land tenure systems in African Anglophone countries. There exists a sliding scale where the state owns all trees and forests to none at all. However, even if trees and forests are all privately owned, laws may still impose restrictive measures on the utilisation of this resource. In these cases, for example, permission to cut a tree may be required. Unfortunately, these restrictions that were originally intended to conserve trees and forests have resulted in negative adverse effects. These laws discourage people from planting trees, as consequently they are not allowed to cut them.

On the other hand there are countries where it is possible to inherit, own or buy a single tree, even though the land on which it grows may be owned by someone else. This has discouraged the planting of trees by immigrants (people from other areas or countries) and tenant farmers that have restricted rights to the use of acquired land. Customary laws do not prevent them from planting trees and managing secondary forest, but to harvest them permission from the landlord is required. Landlords are reluctant to grant permission because the long production period of trees, combined with the lack of appropriate documentation of land ownership, increase the security of land rights for immigrants and tenants when trees are planted.

Unless inheritance laws and land tenure systems are changed, landless people (women, tenants and immigrants) may not readily participate in the conservation and sustainable utilization of secondary forests.

Even when forests are state owned, illegal logging and encroachment by local people and immigrants is evident. The welfare and development of local communities is strongly linked with the (potential) benefits derived from secondary forests. The general consensus is that forest policies have been particularly deficient in addressing this issue. The participation of local communities and farmers in the sustainable management of secondary forests will give more power to these users in managing their own resource, reduce costs to governments, generate income and increase employment opportunities. This will in turn lead to the better maintenance, protection and utilization of secondary forests.

Linked to this is the unfair distribution of revenues. The disbursement of revenues is often delayed due to poor collection and low royalty rates. In most cases the recipients of revenues are not required by law to invest this in the community where the products came from. This has resulted in illegal harvesting and other illegal activities because they provide immediate financial gains.

Conflict management and the development of cross-sectoral policies are crucial to the success of sustainable management of forests. Forestry is usually the weaker sector, especially in those countries where the short term economic gains from mining and agriculture are easily identified. Some countries (The Gambia, Zambia) have recently (1995, 1998) formulated new national forest policies and have simultaneously introduced institutional reform. However, in general there is little information to be found on the impact of the institutional framework on secondary forest management. It is noted that conflicting policies are formulated at the respective legislative bodies, a situation that needs to be resolved to manage this resource in a sustainable and integrated manner.

Many believe that the main problem that governments face is how to integrate communities into the long-term management of secondary forest and still maintain a profitable and export-oriented natural resources sector, whilst at the same time integrating forest management into appropriate national policies.


1. There is considerable confusion and ambiguity on the concept of secondary forests in the region.

2. Spontaneous regeneration / redeveloping state of a forest are prerequisites for it to be categorized as a secondary forest, but there exists controversy on wood, shrub and grass lands.

3. The phrase "significantly disturbed" needs further clarification. Species composition and/or structure must be different than that of the original or surrounding vegetation but is this applicable for wood, shrub and grasslands?

4. The surface areas of the various types of secondary forests are unknown. Updated inventories are needed, defining secondary forests as a separate entity, by age, land use type, percentage cover, etc.

5. Secondary forests are much used by various stakeholders and highly valued, especially by rural communities. With the disappearance of primary forests, stakeholders have come to rely more on secondary forest.

6. Appropriate secondary forest management strategies are lacking. Further degradation of this resource is predicted.

7. There is little exchange of information and insufficient communication, on this topic, between the various stakeholders.

8. Proper management strategies backed by good cross-sectoral policies and a sound institutional framework are needed.

9. Conflicts in land use between the different sectors are evident throughout Anglophone Africa.

10. Revenues derived from secondary forests need to be redefined and increased in order to strengthen the forestry sector.

10 According to FAO the estimated potential (depending on the definition of "secondary forests") areas of tropical secondary forests in Asia and Latin America were 87, 5 and 165 million ha respectively (FAO 1996).

11 Emrich, A., Benno Pokorny and Cornelia Sepp. 2000. The Significance of Secondary Forest Management for Development Policy. Published by GTZ/TOB/TWRP. TOB Series No.: FTWF-18e. Eschborn.

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