Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Chapter 14. West Africa

Figure 14-1. West Africa: forest cover map

West Africa includes 16 countries distributed along a climatic gradient from the Sahel region in the north to the Guineo-Congolese zone in the south (Figure 14-1).[29] This subregion supports a wide range of natural vegetation which includes tropical humid forests, dry forests and savannah. Tropical humid forests can be divided into tropical rain forests and tropical deciduous forests. Tropical rain forests form a belt from the eastern border of Sierra Leone all the way to Ghana. They gradually dissipate near the Volta River; thus, they continue from eastern Benin through southern Nigeria. The tropical deciduous forests lie along the fringes of the tropical rain forests. The dry forest band stretches from northern Nigeria and Chad to Senegal. Dryer climate zones are also characterized by woodlands (tree and shrub savannah, parklands and bush fallows). The West African dry regions correspond to the transition zone of the Sahel as well as the regional centre of Sudanese endemism (Bellefontaine et al. 2000).

Humid regions belong to the Guineo-Congolese endemism centre (IUCN 1996). However, West African rain forests are less biodiverse than the central African ones and the endemism is relatively low (IUCN 1996). Nevertheless, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria are among the 50 most biodiverse countries in the world (WCMC 1994). For example, Nigeria includes about 4 600 plant species, of which approximately 200 are endemic.

Chad, Mali, Mauritania and the Niger are by far the largest countries of West Africa, with a total land area accounting for almost 65 percent of the subregion, although mostly desert. Indeed, the whole forest cover of these four countries represents only 6 percent of their total land area. By contrast, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau are the smallest but the most forested countries of West Africa.


Forest resource knowledge and information quality vary by country. For most West African countries, information and data on forest resources and areas are dated, obsolete and/or partial. Indeed, only a few countries carried out an evaluation of their forest resources at the national level during the 1990s (Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, the Gambia, Nigeria). Other West African countries made earlier national forest assessments (Senegal, 1985; Sierra Leone, 1986; Chad, 1988; Togo, 1975; Liberia, 1981). The remaining West African countries have undertaken partial assessments covering only parts of their national forests. Consequently, the forest areas for some West African countries presented in Table 14-1 are based on national expert estimates (Chad, Ghana, Liberia, Mauritania, the Niger, Sierra Leone, Togo). A workshop was organized in Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire on data collection for this subregion in 1999 with the participation of all West African countries except Chad (FAO 2000).

Table 14-1. West 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



11 063

2 538


2 650









Burkina Faso

27 360

7 023


7 089










125 920

12 678


12 692









Côte d'Ivoire

31 800

6 933


7 117







1 387



1 000













22 754

6 259


6 335










24 572

6 904


6 929










3 612

2 186


2 187










11 137

3 363


3 481










122 019

13 172


13 186










102 522













126 670

1 256


1 328










91 077

12 824


13 517










19 252

5 942


6 205









Sierra Leone

7 162

1 049


1 055










5 439












Total West Africa

733 359

83 369

1 710

85 079



-1 351






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.
West African countries have limited forest resources (approximately 11 percent of the total land area) because of the climate (countries of the Sahelo-Sudanese zone), large populations (e.g. Nigeria, Benin, Togo), agricultural clearing or long-term export of wood products (e.g. Côte d'Ivoire ). Therefore, the forests of this subregion represent only 13 percent of the total forest cover of the continent and 2 percent of the world forest area. Guinea-Bissau is by far the most forested country with 60 percent of its land area covered by forests. Mauritania and the Niger, on the other hand, are the least forested countries (0.3 and 1.0 percent of their total land area, respectively) because of dry climatic conditions. West Africa has a high annual negative rate of forest area change (-1.5 percent on average) compared to the whole of Africa (-0.78 percent). In terms of area, Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire have by far the greatest negative annual loss of forest cover. The Niger has the highest annual deforestation rate (Table 14-1, Figure 14-2).

Forest plantations in West Africa account for more than 20 percent of all African plantations. However, the statistics on planted forests are not reliable in several countries because of lack of inventories, frequent fires, lack of maintenance and/or uncontrolled clearing (e.g. Guinea, Ghana, Liberia, Chad). In the humid part of West Africa, countries have significant areas of forest plantations, mostly for industrial purposes (e.g. Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Nigeria). Nevertheless, plantations for timber production, which are expensive and difficult to manage, have been insufficient to compensate for the extensive exploitation of natural forests. In addition, the area of plantations for high-grade hardwood timber similar to that which is extracted from the humid forests is insufficient to have any impact on the supply of such timber in the foreseeable future (FAO 2000). In dry parts of the subregion, forest plantation areas are less important and are mainly non-industrial (with the exception of Senegal). Many plantations have been established to try to stop, or even to reverse, the desertification process, which is the main ecological problem of numerous countries with dry climates (the Niger, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal) (FAO 2000).

Figure 14-2. West Africa: natural forest and plantation areas 2000 and net area change 1990-2000

The total volume of West African forests is estimated at approximately 5 billion cubic metres over bark, which is 11 percent of the volume of all African forests. The volume and biomass estimates for most countries are based on existing forest inventories. In humid zones, volume assessment is focused on timber volume. In dry zones, volume assessment usually includes the whole ligneous biomass, including trunks and branches, for fuelwood consumption. Maximal production of natural vegetation in West Africa was estimated to vary from 0.1 to 2.75 m3 per hectare per year according to rainfall and vegetation type (Bellefontaine et al. 2000).

Wood provided by trees outside the forest is extremely important in this subregion. Indeed, the sparse forest cover of most West African countries makes this material very valuable, notably in dry zones where a large part of fuelwood is harvested outside the forest. Jensen (1995) estimated that the volume in fallows and sparse trees on agricultural lands constitutes approximately 30 percent of the wood resources in Burkina Faso and 19 percent in the Gambia.


Only three of the 16 countries in West Africa provided national-level information on the forest area covered by a formal, nationally approved forest management plan (Table 14-1). Of these countries, Togo had the lowest percentage (2 percent) and Côte d'Ivoire the highest (19 percent). Partial figures were available from Nigeria (lowland rain forests only) indicating that at least 832 000 hectares (or 6 percent) of the total forest area of the country was covered by a management plan. Information was lacking for the remaining countries, including Ghana, which according to a recent ITTO study (ITTO 2000) appeared to have established all the conditions that make it likely that the country can manage its forest management units sustainably.

Decentralization has started in a majority of West African countries, clarifying the role and ownership of resources. Nevertheless, land tenure is sometimes very complex because of overlapping land tenure rights and uses. This is particularly notable in savannah regions and even more in Sahelian zones where forest, pastoral and agricultural domains overlap (Bellefontaine et al. 2000).

Natural forest exploitation and management has a long history in the humid part of West Africa. A number of different systems of tropical silviculture have been tried in the past to maximize yield (e.g. tropical shelterwood, modified selection, etc.). These silvicultural techniques have not always been successful for both ecological and managerial reasons (FAO 2000; Dupuy et al. 1999). In all the countries of the subregion with tropical humid forests, government forestry departments control the right to exploit timber. Regulations specify the logging methods and the most appropriate logging systems. Private timber companies or individuals are awarded concessions by the government and issued contracts that spell out the regulations and procedures to be followed, including in some cases restocking and post harvest operations. However, monitoring and control by government are often lacking owing to limited resources. For forest plantations, agreements and contracts are set up to manage their exploitation and to prevent conflicts (FAO 2000).

In dry zones, a number of pilot projects are currently in progress or have been completed to assess the consequences of increased public participation in forest management. During the 1980s, numerous projects were undertaken with limited participation. Since then, considerations of land tenure, user and interest groups and problems of conflicting uses have led to increased decentralized management of natural resources for the benefit of local people (Dupuy et al. 1999). In addition, local participation has slowly increased in reforestation programmes. The decentralization process is illustrated by the Energie II project in the Niger, whose main objective is sustainable forest management for fuelwood utilization. The project is based on the transfer of management responsibility for renewable natural resources (but not the property) from the State to the local population (Bellefontaine et al. 2000).

Large quantities of wood energy are consumed in the subregion. Fuelwood is thought to constitute 85 percent of the total energy consumption in these countries, but there is no reliable information on wood trade and consumption (FAO 2000). The highest consumption is found in Burkina Faso and the Gambia. High population density has led to overexploitation of forests for fuelwood in the dry forests of the Niger, Nigeria, Togo and Benin, where this resource is becoming increasingly scarce, leading to occasional shortages (Bellefontaine et al., 2000).

Non-wood forest products are important to local people, but there are few statistics except for commercially marketable products. Information is available on some products (such as gum arabic in Chad) because their export contributes to the national budget. Trees are also an important source of fodder in dry zones.

Many countries have created coordinating agencies for environmental management. Decentralization of government functions in environmental planning is also now taking place (Benin, the Gambia, Ghana). Some countries have formulated new legislation on environmental and natural resource management as well as establishing monitoring and regulatory systems (e.g. Côte d'Ivoire). For example, Ghana has prepared environmental impact assessment guidelines (FAO 2000). Several NGOs are working on sustainable conservation of biodiversity in protected areas. In 1997, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre estimated that there are approximately 128 legally protected areas in West Africa (WCMC 1997).


Most West African countries have defined, or are currently defining, new forestry policies that include the concept of sustainable forest management. Nevertheless, most countries have insufficient financial and material means to implement these policies properly (FAO 2000). In general, forestry programmes are poorly funded. Hence, forestry institutions in most West African countries are ill-equipped to implement their functions. For most of these countries, forest resource information is generally unreliable, relatively outdated and in need of revision. Many countries do have the administrative and technical capacity to carry out forest plantation work. However, maintenance and commercialization of plantations are also impacted by the lack of financial means (FAO 2000).

Pressure on forest resources in West Africa results from multiple factors, including rapid population growth, economic development, poverty and government policies (lack of decentralization in some countries, lack of adequate information on forests, poor project implementation, etc.). Failure to recognize the legal rights of indigenous peoples and other traditional communities in their territories can also lead to deforestation. This, coupled with the absence of land security, often creates a situation of open access where no person or community is responsible for the land. Conflicts in some West African countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone) have led to the destruction of forests and infrastructure as well as the settlement of refugees in forested areas. Urban population growth generally leads to deforestation in the immediate vicinity because of forest exploitation for fuelwood, building materials and land for settlement (FAO 2000; Bellefontaine et al. 2000).

The main causes of deforestation are agriculture coupled with poor farming practices (shifting cultivation and cash crops), logging (poor logging practices, poor concessionaire agreements, etc.), and other land uses such as urban development and mining. Forests have been widely overexploited for timber in the subregion (FAO 2000). In humid forests, replacement by cash crops and tree plantations is one of the main causes of deforestation. Large areas of tropical rain forest have been cleared to plant cash crops such as cocoa, coffee and rubber (e.g. Côte d'Ivoire). Forest fires are considered one of the greatest constraints to conservation and sustainable forest management. Uncontrolled fires, in conjunction with shifting cultivation, result in poor herbaceous vegetation dominated by species such as Panicum maximum and Imperata cylindrica (Louppe et al. 1995).

Mangroves are also under increasing pressure from economic development in coastal zones, conversion into agricultural lands (rice fields) and fuelwood collection for coastal cities (FAO 2000).

In dry zones, the scarcity of fertile soil for agriculture increases the pressure on forested lands. In addition to immediate and permanent conversion to agriculture, a progressive degradation because of short forest fallow also takes place. Hence, the preservation of fertility is no longer assured. Continuing overgrazing in some areas in addition to uncontrolled fires accelerates soil degradation processes. Fuelwood scarcity and forest degradation occur with high populations and insufficient forest area. Clearing and fuelwood collection can easily exceed the regenerative capacity of the ecosystem. This is the widespread "fuelwood crisis" characteristic of numerous Sahel countries (Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, the Niger, Chad). The rate of tree cutting for fuel is increasing. However, most countries have developed energy policies and regional cooperation in the energy sector is being improved through the creation of an African Energy Commission (FAO 2000).

Climate is a major natural factor that reinforces the effects of human activities on the environment, particularly in tropical dry zones where severe droughts are frequent and soil quality is poor. Desertification is the major ecological issue for countries in the southern Sahara. Considerable effort has been expended to stop and even reverse this trend, including reforestation with exotic species, green belt plantations and agroforestry development. In addition, there have been important advances in the development of high-yield crop varieties, research in agroforestry systems (since the 1970s) to improve productivity and sustainability and the beginning of research into low-cost modification of shifting cultivation. There has also been a great deal of scientific research on nitrogen-fixing trees, which are important in the conservation of soil fertility. The utilization of these trees has led to spectacular results in sand dune fixation in Senegal. In addition, there is regional collaboration on practical and consistent regulations for protection of forests, to deal with the negative effects of conflicts on the environment and land-related issues such as desertification (Bellefontaine et al. 2000; FAO 2000).

Forestry projects in West Africa currently embrace concepts of management of renewable resources by integrating multiple land uses with the participation of local people. Participation has increased during the last few years but still needs to be improved. Other important issues include improving forest staff training, conducting educational programmes for the public on sustainable agricultural practices and agroforestry techniques, promoting alternative energy sources and energy saving techniques and improving the use of wood products (FAO 2000).


Bellefontaine, R., Gaston, A. & Petrucci, Y. 2000. Management of natural forests of dry tropical zones. FAO Conservation Guide No. 32. Rome.

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. Montpellier, France, Cirad-Forêt.

FAO. 2000. Actes de l'atelier sous-régional sur les statistiques forestières et perspectives pour le secteur forestier en Afrique/FOSA sous région ECOWAS. Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire, 13-18 December 1999. FAO, Rome.

ITTO. 2000. Review of progress towards the year 2000 objective, by D. Poore and Tang Hooi Chiew. Report presented at the 28th session of the ITTC, 24-30 May 2000, Lima, Peru. ITTC(XXVIII)/9/Rev.2.

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

Jensen, A.M. 1995. Evaluation des données sur les ressources ligneuses au Burkina Faso, Gambie, Mali, Niger et Sénégal. In: Examen des politiques, stratégies et programmes du secteur des énergies traditionnelles. World Bank. 2nd version.

Louppe, D., Ouattara, N. & Coulibaly A. 1995. The effects of bush fires on vegetation: the Aubréville fire plots after 60 years. Commonwealth Forestry Review. 74(4): 288-292.

WCMC. 1994. Priorities for conserving global species richness and endemism. WCMC Biodiversity Series No. 3. World Conservation Press.

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

[29] For more details by country, see

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page