Forests and Forestry

Forests are one of Africa’s most important natural resources, both for the influence they have in the continent’s ecology and for their economic benefits. For thousands of years, the forests have provided habitats for a wide range of plants and animals. They have also served as a source of food, fuel, building materials, and trade goods for humans. Because of the crucial role they play in the natural and human environment, African forests have long been the focus of various management programs.


Over one-fifth of Africa is covered with forests. They range from lowlying tropical rain forests to woodlands in the savannas or the highlands. From earliest times, climate changes have influenced the types of forest found on the continent.

Tens of millions of years ago, Africa was part of a giant continent known as Gondwanaland. Gondwanaland eventually broke apart, leaving Africa surrounded by oceans that produced a very rainy climate. For a time rain forests covered virtually the entire African continent. As Africa drifted northward, its climate changed and the forests retreated to the south. Later, the ice ages that left Europe and North America covered with glaciers also brought cooler and drier weather to Africa. Forests in drier climates shrank, while those in wetter climates remained largely intact.

Africa: Forests and Forestry

Today most of Africa’s forests are located in a band stretching from the southern tip of the continent north to the horn of Africa and west to SENEGAL. Coastal areas of eastern, northeastern, and southern Africa support small areas of tropical forest. Dry forests are found in the mountains and highland regions of east-central Africa, and gallery forests—stands of trees in open plains—follow the courses of many rivers in savanna areas.

Rainfall and other sources of moisture play a leading role in the location of forests and their physical environment. In hotter lowland regions, forests require about 60 inches of rain per year to thrive. The trees in these forests are much taller than those at high altitudes, with some species reaching 200 feet. At cooler, higher elevations, 40 inches of rain per year is sufficient for forest growth. Groundwater from rivers or swamps can occasionally provide enough moisture to support forests in areas that do not receive large amounts of rain. In high-altitude mist forests, many trees are covered by mosses that absorb moisture from the clouds and serve as a source of water for the trees.


In recent years rapid deforestation has called attention to the impact of humans on African forests. However, the phenomenon of deforestation is not new. Colonial rulers in the early 1900s voiced many of the same concerns as environmentalists today. Unfortunately, their solutions often did nothing to help the situation, and in many cases they made it worse.

Precolonial Management

African populations managed and exploited forest resources long before Europeans arrived on the continent. They used forests for farming and herding, and as a source of trade goods such as kola nuts. Forests also supplied fuel for cooking and warmth; foods such as nuts, fruit, honey, and game animals; and poles, branches, and leaves for building and thatching. In addition, they were often considered places of spiritual and religious significance.

As local populations increased, they cleared forests for settlement and cultivation. Africans have practiced swidden (slash and burn) agriculture in wooded areas for thousands of years. Peoples who raised livestock often cut or burned forests to provide pasture for their animals. This also served to eliminate breeding grounds for the tsetse fly, which carries a disease that is deadly to humans and large animals.

Because of the importance of forests in their lives, many African societies took an active role in managing forest resources. Leaders often determined who could use various parts of the forest, when, and for what purposes. Forest dwellers might abandon areas when resources were exhausted and return later when the region had recovered. The low population density in Africa before the colonial era exerted little pressure on forest resources, so that even activities such as swidden agriculture had limited impact on the environment.

Colonial Policies

The European colonization of Africa brought major changes to the way forests were used. Europeans saw Africa’s vast forests primarily as a source of timber or products such as rubber, elephant ivory, or minerals. Private companies received rights to exploit the forests and often overexploited many of the resources.

As the forests began to shrink and valuable species of trees became scarcer, colonial authorities became concerned about maintaining and managing forest resources. Sometimes blaming the loss of trees on local practices such as swidden agriculture, Europeans began to restrict Africans’ access to the forests. Their policies included establishing forest reserves and tree plantations to grow a single type of tree (often a nonnative species) for commercial purposes. Colonial authorities sometimes resorted to brutal methods to enforce rules limiting forest use. Despite these efforts, timber resources continued to dwindle, largely because the European settlers knew little about the ecology and dynamics of the rain forest.

Many colonial practices continued after independence as African nations looked to their forests to provide goods for export. Some Africans rejected colonial policies. They realized that the policies not only failed to yield significant revenues or prevent deforestation but also denied local populations access to food and fuel from the forest. Poor soils and unpredictable climate make large-scale agriculture difficult in most places in Africa. For this reason, many people rely on forest products to supplement their diets. In addition, people need wood, still Africa’s primary fuel, for heating and cooking.

Modern forestry officials have come to understand the advantages of the multiuse strategy that existed in precolonial days. Some countries have begun to adopt policies that give local populations a greater say in how the forests are used. Deforestation is still a major concern, and Africa continues to lose about 0.7 percent of its total forest cover each year. Giving rural people more control over the forests may increase local efforts to manage resources well. (See also Colonialism in AfricaEcosystems, Energy and Energy Resources, Peasantry and Land Settlement, Plantation Systems.)