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5. Degradation of forests

As a result of the unsustainable usage such as the extraction of wood and non-wood products, expansion of agricultural activities and frequent incidences of fire, most of the forests have undergone changes, more often to secondary succession, resulting to lesser dense forests, poor regeneration potential, lower growth, undesirable grass occupation and lower plant species diversity.

5.1 Forest fires

Fire was and is still being used as the most expedient tool for agricultural land preparation. The main causes of the destructive bush and forest fires is therefore uncontrolled burning of farmlands and deliberately set fires. While fire does not create much destruction in closed forests, in the situation of most Gambian savannah forest it is very destructive. Forests are very open stimulating grass growth. In addition, the disturbed woodland and savannah vegetation accumulates a considerable amount of combustible material during the rainy season so that succeeding fires in the dry season burn hotter and even large trees succumb. Annual hot fires eradicate most of the natural tree regeneration, which further opens the forest, induces additional grass growth and, thus, accelerates the vicious circle of forest destruction. The increases of secondary savannah composed of reduced number of mainly fire and drought resistant vegetation cover is a direct result of frequent fire.

Bush and forest fires have been affecting an averaged of about 80% of the Gambian forest lands. However, an estimation of about 67% of wild fires, a reduction of about 13% from the normal average, was registered between 1995 to 1999. This is more due to the expansion of community involvement in forest management in almost countrywide.

Other effects and impacts of bush and forest fires in The Gambia include:

~change and loss of habitat for the indigenous plant and animal population

~soil and water degradation due to release and export of mineral elements stored in the burnt biomass, and deterioration of physical and chemical soil properties

~change in species composition and bio-diversity

~waste of biomass which could be used for fuel, fodder, composting, etc.

~change in micro-climate

~air pollution and increase in the ‘green house effect’.

5.2 Uncontrolled usage of forest products

Usage here is referred to more of the domestic rural usage of forest products such as collection of fuelwood for family cooking, post for fencing, collection of bush tea and local medicines.

The introduction of the state owned forest park management concept in the 50s and the enactment of the forest legislation in 1977 vested on the stated control power over the nation’s forest. The population started to perceive their traditional activities in the forest as ‘illegal’ only to be policed by the Forestry Department (FD). On the other side, the FD entrusted with the sustainable management of the national forest cover was and is still not in position to ensure controlled forest utilisation without adequate support provided by forest adjacent communities.

The local population’s feeling of being alienated from forest resource management, the increasing fears and mistrust towards FD personnel being responsible for the exploitation of surrounding forest through licensing and permits, and the FD’s constraints in terns of finance and personnel to effectively monitor forest operations are the major reason why natural forest, except those with a known ownership and protection status, are still widely considered open access recourses to which the ‘tragedy of the common’ thesis applies (Thoma & Sillah). These resources therefore suffer severe degradation, because there is less control as long as nobody can be sure of having access to the long-term benefits of use. This leads to the ‘rational’ strategy of getting as much as possible use now without regard to long-term usability and to the lack in the interest of investing into any resource conservation measure.

5.3 Increasing demand on forest products in particular fuel wood

The rapid population growth has led to an increased demand of forest products in particular fuelwood, construction material and fence posts. Firewood and other products collected and used for home consumption are traditionally regarded by rural households as free commodities. The prize of commercial fuelwood do not include the stumpage fees per -se, rather the market value is determined by the work and cost involved for collection, processing and transportation.

A fuelwood survey recently carried out by National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) indicated that 97.8% of all households surveyed use wood as primary source of fuel particularly for cooking. Presently for the majority of the Gambian population no other energy source is economical than wood. According to the survey results, some 73% of the households sampled use the traditional 3-stone stove for cooking. Some, mainly the urban and semi-urban households use metal, gas or charcoal stoves. Astonishingly, none of the rural households interviewed used improved mud stoves such as the `kumba gaye’ type according to the NARI. The conclusion from the survey result is the unwillingness of all the sampled households to locally adopt improved energy saving cooking systems.

The burring properties of wood plays an important role in the selection of fuel wood species for cooking. The most important wood attributes are its caloric value, smoke production, workability, flammability, production of good charcoal, and smell (i.e. the taste of the food). Certain tree species like Pterocarpus erinaceaus, Terminally macroptera and Combretum glutionsum fulfil the preferred attributes more compared to others, and are therefore the most demanded species. Consequently, these species are being over-exploited and getting scarce in some parts of the country. The scarcity as indicated in table 7 force the rural farmers to use wood of less quality such as Gmelina arborea or branchwood that are sold at a lower prize. The introduction of branchwood in the market is very recent, only in 1998. Before this time, there was no market for branchwood.

Various studies have been undertaken to estimate the fuelwood consumption and demand of the country. These estimates gave consumption rates varying from 0.34 to 1.44 m3 per capita and year (Steiner, 1996 and NARI, 1999). Since fuelwood consumption per capital repressively increases with population growth, the real annual consumption most probably lies at present within the range of 0.4 and 0.6 m3 per capital. By assuming an average value of 0.5 m3, the annual fuelwood consumption would amount to about 650,000 m3 which is more than the annual increment of the country’s forest cover of about 523,000 m3 (excluding mangroves and Gmelina plantations) as estimated by Ludwig and Bojang (1999). However, it would not be accurate to compare both figures directly since rural households traditionally collect dry branchwood the volume of which is not computed in forest inventories and thus not included in the volume and increment data provided in table 7. Therefore, national inventories and surveys are deficient in estimating real consumption values.

Sustainable wood supply becomes much more critical by taking into account that an essential wood quantity is annually eaten by bush fires, used for other domestic and commercial purposes such as fencing, construction, fish smoking, carpentry, lime and salt production, without records. At present, the countries wood demand is covered through import of firewood canted wood, timber and palm split from neighbouring countries and by further over-exploiting the natural forests through illegal felling, as the decrease of stocking volume in the following table clearly indicates (the increase of stocking volume of tree and shrub savannah is explained by the increase in it’s area).


Table 7: Comparison of stocking volumes and annual increments (1982 - 1997)

Land use class

Total stocking volumes (1,000 m3)

Volume of dead wood (1,000 m3)

Annual increment (1,000 m3)











Closed wood land










Open wood











Tree & shrub











Agriculture with trees










Agriculture with no trees










Fallow land






























Sources: Thoma & Sillah, 1999

Although the total stocking volume of the national forest cover seems to have declined just by 5% from 1982 to 1997 and a promising increase in the annual increment on woody biomass of 38% particularly on agricultural lands, the estimates on the actual and future demand of forest products call for immediate actions in order to counteract the acceleration of the on-going degradation trend.

Charcoal, the production of which was banned in The Gambia in 1980, is mainly used for brewing and for ironing. The new Forestry Bill 1998 however permits the vending only provided it is acquired through importation and accompanied by a document from the country of origin. The vendors, majority of which a women, import from Senegal through an informal trade.

In urban areas, a good part of all households uses gas for boiling, for re-heating the children’s food and a few for cooking. The use of kerosene is limited to providing light at night. Almost 70% of the rural and some 50% of the urban and semi-urban households use kerosene for this purpose.

5.4 Conversion of forest into farmland

Closed and open woodlands, sometimes also called ‘virgin’ lands, with a total area of some 100,800 ha in 1992, are still being converted into agricultural lands at an estimated rate of about 1.3% or 1,400 ha per annum. The highest conversion rates occur in the central part of the country.

According to the Government of The Gambia (GoTG, 1996), some 52% or 588.800 ha of the country’s surface land area comprises of arable land. In 1993, a total of 415,600 ha was classified as land used for agricultural production including fallow land. Thus, most of the potential arable lands are probably found in the remaining woodlands while a considerable portion is certainly included in the land use category ‘others’. On the other side, these woodlands constitute the remaining habitats for the diminishing indigenous plant and animal population that deserve highest protection.

The on-going conversion of woodlands into agricultural lands is mainly due to a shortage of arable land caused by applying inappropriate (traditional) farming practices, poverty and population growth (Munderlein 1999). Another contributing factor is the customary land tenure system, by which founder families own most of the agricultural lands. These landowners are mostly unwilling to lend out arable lands, therefore the landless people are force to clear forestlands in order to secure a piece for crop production. Prevailing interest conflict between agricultural and forest production call for socially acceptable land use regulations and land use planning at local level.

5.5 Over-grazing of forest resources

Woodland and savanna resources account for approximately two third of livestock feed supplies in the country. As a result of frequent fires and selective grazing by livestock, the herbs and grass layer has changed from previously dominant perennials to annuals, and the frequency of unpalatable dicotyledon species has increased (Schwartz, 1999). Although the country’s livestock populations seem to be rather stable during the last 20 years (Schwartz, 1999), the changing vegetation cover towards less favourable dire conditions forces farmers and livestock owners to graze their stock in areas less suitable thus aggravating and accelerating forest and land degradation processes. In the recent years, an increase in seasonal migration of livestock from northern Senegal is observed in the central and eastern part of the country. On the south bank of the river, Gambian livestock owners partly feed their animals in the Cassamance.

A dire shortage of suitable pastures usually occurs from February to June when much of the dry materials are being destroyed by fire, termites and trampling. This is the period when shrubs and tree regeneration is intensively browsed. Unfortunately, no information and data could be obta ined which allow to qualify the damage on trees caused by forest grazing. Descheres and ludwig (1994) could not find a correlation between livestock grazing pressure and browsing intensity on tree regeneration in Kasila community forest. However, they collected the field data in December/January when browsing has not yet reached its peak.



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