NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Africa's Trees Aren't Disappearing

May 8, 2000

Environmentalists often contend that Africa is being de-forested at an alarming rate. But recent research indicates that any loss is probably far less than the alarmists would have us believe, and that in fact the number of forested acres is actually growing in some African countries -- due to climate change and population growth.

Earlier estimates of the extent of forest lands were exaggerated, making the loss acreage appear greater, say British researchers Melissa Leach and James Fairhead in "Population and Development Review."

  • They calculate, for example, that the Ivory Coast in 1900 probably had half the number of forested acres that environmentalists estimated several decades ago -- with the result that the rate of loss is only about 40 percent of what is commonly supposed.
  • Some of the most famous forest reserves -- such as those in Guinea and Sierra Leone -- were largely savannas or even farmland a century ago.
  • Large tracts of supposedly undisturbed forest are actually regrowth on areas which had been intensively cultivated until the slave trade reduced the population, Fairhead argued in a 1998 book.
  • And there is evidence that forests are actually increasing in some parts of Africa, due to a wetter climate and increasing population.

Over the past 600 to 700 years, the African climate has become more humid -- allowing trees to grow were they couldn't before. And increasing populations of farmers help control brush fires which could destroy forests. They enrich the soil, as well, and plant or preserve trees for fruit, medicine, shelter or timber.

Source: "African Forests: Growing or Going?" Economist, April 29, 2000.


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