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Deforestation in Sub-Saharan Africa

Yvonne Agyei *

Deforestation is an complex problem. A recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that during the decade from 1980 to 1990, the world's tropical forests were reduced by an average of 15.4 million hectares per year (0.8 percent annual rate of deforestation). The area of land cleared during the decade is equivalent to nearly three times the size of France. The phenomenon of deforestation is occurring globally, in different types of forests, and for different reasons.

At the end of 1990, Africa had an estimated 528 million hectares, or 30 percent of the world's tropical forests. In several Sub-Saharan African countries, the rate of deforestation exceeded the global annual average of 0.8 percent. While deforestation in other parts of the world is mainly caused by commercial logging or cattle ranching the leading causes in Africa are associated with human activity.

Developing countries rely heavily on wood fuel, the major energy source for cooking and heating. In Africa, the statistics are striking: an estimated 90 percent of the entire continent's population uses fuelwood for cooking, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, firewood and brush supply approximately 52 percent of all energy sources.

Land clearing by farmers may contribute as much as fuelwood gathering in the depletion of tree stocks. According to Porter and Brown, conversion of forests for subsistence and commercial agriculture may account for as much as 60 percent of world-wide deforestation.1 An estimated 20 to 25 percent of annual deforestation is thought to be due to commercial logging. The remaining 15 to 20 percent is attributed to other activities such as cattle ranching, cash crop plantations, and the construction of dams, roads, and mines. In Africa, governments invest substantially more in cash crops than in food crops as reflected in pricing and marketing policies. However, deforestation is primarily caused by the activities of the general population.

Proposed Solutions

While there is general agreement that deforestation is a problem, there is no consensus on its cause or on ways to develop a solution. Some of the proposed solutions include regulating the logging industry, developing forest protection schemes, and addressing human activities that promote deforestation.

Regulating the Logging Industry

Concerned mainly with commercial logging, this approach proposes the regulation of the worldwide industry in logging and other commercial uses of forests. For example, a global treaty on forestry could ban the cutting down of certain types of "endangered" trees (similar to the ban on ivory trade), or greatly decrease the harvesting of some trees (as was done with whaling), or agree to reduce deforestation by a certain percent each year. Regulating commercial logging can lead to sustainable management of forests. As such, countries can require a certain amount of tree replanting or creating tree plantations. Since much of logging is for the pulp and paper industry, that sector can be required to engage in more recycling of used paper products, rather than destroying more forests.

Commercial logging only accounts for at most one-quarter of the global deforestation problem, so focusing only on the logging industry is an inadequate solution. If a treaty on forestry is signed, it may have the unfortunate consequence of appearing to have resolved the problem without dealing with its underlying causes. This approach must be used in combination with others to treat this issue.

Forest Protection Schemes

This approach usually involves the creation of national parks or forest reserves. In developing countries, this may evolve out of pressure by the citizens and local environmental organizations, but the impetus usually comes from abroad. For example, donor countries and international NGOs may use "debt-for-nature" swaps to influence developing nations to set aside forest areas. The donor agencies effectively "buy" the forest area by paying off some of the target country's foreign debt in exchange for the promise not to develop the area. Such a deal has been successfully brokered between Norway and Costa Rica.

While trade regulations and protection of forests are frequently cited as solutions to the problem of deforestation, they are not enough. A recent review of various approaches towards regulating commercial logging concluded that by 1990 "there was general agreement that none of the approaches previously tried had been effective in slowing the rate of deforestation in tropical forests."2 Particularly for sub-Saharan Africa, these proposals do not address the underlying causes because fuelwood is the main source of energy in Africa, and most land clearing is for subsistence agriculture.

Human Activity

Several explanations have been given for the problem of deforestation as a result of human activity. One explanation is known as the "commons problem"—suggesting that communal living and land tenure systems in Africa provide no incentives to individual investment or maintenance of the land.

Supporters of this notion say that the problem of land degradation may be combated by restructuring the ownership of land. They advocate a shift from communal land tenure to individual ownership to provide security, encourage investment, and improve maintenance of the land. Developing countries are advised to modify existing land tenure laws to allow more individual private ownership. While this approach may seem logical to Westerners, there is much doubt about its effectiveness. There is little empirical evidence to support the assertion that communal land tenure systems do not provide security. In their study of the environment in Africa, Cleaver and Schreiber maintain that "traditional land tenure systems provide considerable security of tenure on land brought into the farming cycle through customary rules of community land ownership and allocation of use rights to members of the community. In most cases, the tenurial security enjoyed by members of the community is sufficient to induce investment in land."3

Ironically, in an attempt to modify traditional land tenure schemes, many African countries have nationalized ownership of land, often destroying centuries-old customary laws. This has often resulted in ambiguity over land ownership and use rights, creating situations of open-access where no person or community is responsible for maintaining the fertility of the land. When governments take over land rights, often the wealthy and well-connected are able to use their influence to secure land use rights.

Another explanation put forward is the low level of knowledge of subsistence farmers. Farmers may not be aware of soil erosion or the benefits that trees can have on soil fertility. The recommended policy is to educate farmers about maintaining the land, and provide them with technology in the form of fertilizers or machinery.

Another way of addressing the fuelwood problem advocated by agencies such as the World Bank, is based on the idea that eliminating open-access sources of fuelwood and developing a controlled market will decrease deforestation.4 A controlled agroforestry market involves tree farming, fees on transporting fuelwood, and restricted areas where trees may not be cut for fuel. This strategy may not work in traditional African societies. In countries were the government has little control outside of the capital, it would be nearly impossible to collect fees or enforce rules on harvesting fuelwood. African countries simply do not have the institutions necessary to allow the operation of such market forces.

Other proposals focus directly on the use of fuelwood. This may be done by providing more efficient methods of burning fuelwood, such as the fuel efficient Lorena stoves. This form of technology transfer has been introduced in refugee camps were deforestation is common. However, the mere introduction of superior technology is ineffectual without modifying the behavior of those using them.

Population and the Environment

None of the above proposals for dealing with deforestation addresses the fundamental issue of population pressures upon the land. Recent statistics published by The World Resources Institute show that Africa has the fastest growing population, with an annual growth rate of approximately 3 percent, nearly twice the average world growth rate of 1.7 percent.5 The total fertility rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is about 6 children per woman over her lifetime. At the same time, the life expectancy has increased, while infant mortality has decreased. With the population in Sub-Saharan Africa expected to double in a little over 20 years, it is not surprising that more and more forests are being cleared.

Any serious attempt to deal with deforestation and its consequences must involve a commitment to reduce the population growth rate. Family planning policies will need to take culture, social values, and traditions into account to be effective. It may be necessary to approach the issue of population growth through indirect means to avoid conflict with social customs which leave women powerless to determine fundamental issues such as family size.

There is a strong relationship between the status of women and environmental degradation such as deforestation. Women's level of education is negatively correlated with fertility: World Bank studies indicate that with every year of schooling a woman receives, her fertility goes down. Increasing women's education also leads to better knowledge about nutrition and health, resulting in healthier children. Lowering infant mortality and improving children's survival rates will reduce the demand for children. Educating women has the effect of improving the population as a whole, and helps to decrease growth rates. This in turn will lessen the population pressures upon the land.


Deforestation can be seen as a local issue with global consequences. Therefore, actors such as NGOs, donor governments, and the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa must work together to combat the problem. While external actors have a role to play in reducing population, they will be more effective in a supporting role. NGOs and Western countries can provide knowledge about the problem of deforestation and techniques to handle the problem, but African countries themselves must take the primary responsibility because ultimately their people are most affected.


* Yvonne Agyei is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford,. MA.


1 Porter, G. and J. W. Brown. Global Environmental Politics. (Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado) 1991.

2 ibid. p.102.

3 Cleaver, K. and G. Schreiber. "The Population, Environment and Agriculture Nexis in Sub-Saharan Africa." in Agriculture and Environmental Challenges, Jitendra P. Srivastava and Harold Alderman, eds., p.204. (World Bank, Washington D.C.) 1993.

4 Anderson, D. The Economics of Afforestation: A Case Study in Africa. World Bank Occasional Paper Series, No. 1. (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland) 1993.

5 World Resources Institute. World Resources 1994-95. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, England) 1994.

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