Why are the forests of the Green Heart of Africa so important?

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Baka pygmy children, Minkébé, Gabon
© WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER

More than 6 billion reasons to keep the forests alive

The forests of the Congo River Basin are the breadbasket and home of millions of people.

Besides supplying game and wood, regulating the local climate and the flow of water, protecting and enriching soils, controlling pests and diseases and safeguarding water quality, they also offer us the unmatched beauty of the morning mist on a landscape.

But the range of benefits provided by the Congo Basin forests extends well beyond the African continent. In fact, their role and importance means something different to everyone. But just exactly how?

Biodiversity

Over time, the Congo Basin forests have fostered the evolution of a huge number of highly specialized species.

They are home to some of the most spectacular and endangered wildlife in Africa, including about one-half of the remaining elephants on the continent. Also making a home here are most of the remaining gorillas. Simply put, with the forests gone, these species have nowhere else to go.

This is particularly the case for endemic mammals such as the bonobo (Pongo pygmaeus), okapi (okapia johnstoni), several species of monkey such as the sun-tailed guenon (Cercopithecus solatus), Dollman's tree mouse (Prionomys batesi), Remy's shrew (Suncus remyi), and the recently discovered shrew, Sylvisorex konganensis, species which occur nowhere else.

Other benefits of forest biodiversity include the enormous untapped potential for agricultural, pharmaceutical and nutritional resources.

The moabi and the elephant

The crucial link between wildlife and forests is well illustrated by the elephant and a majestic tree called the moabi.

Elephants are fond of the fruit of the moabi, and distribute its seeds over large areas. If the moabi were to vanish, the elephants would lose a key food source, and if the elephants vanish, the moabi's principal means of distribution across the forest ecosystem would disappear.

Carbon storing

Trees have hidden attributes, in that they play a key role in absorbing pollutants in the air. Take carbon dioxide (CO2) for example. This compound is the main pollutant responsible for global warming, the excessive accumulation of natural and human-induced pollutants that are released and kept in the atmosphere by the greenhouse effect.

Under natural conditions, plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere and absorb it for photosynthesis, a process that yields:
  • Oxygen, which is released back into the air and…
  • Carbon, which allows the plant to grow. Through their CO2 absorption role, trees store carbon stocks equivalent to more than a decade of global fossil fuel emissions.

What forests take from the air, they can also give back. When rainforests burn, tree carbon matter is released in the form of CO2, which adds to the greenhouse effect.1

Climate regulation

Tropical forests and woodlands exchange vast amounts of water and energy with the atmosphere and are thought to be important in controlling local and regional climates. 2

Water released by plants into the atmosphere and into the ocean by rivers influences world climate and ocean circulation. This process is a cycle as it then sustains the regional climate on which it depends.

Though there are no such studies for Central Africa, massive deforestation could result in average rainfall decreasing by as much as 50%.3

Non-timber forest products (NTFPs)

Chances are that you are already in possession of NTFPs at your home. Perhaps a rattan chair, a bamboo table, or imported dried fruit? Generally, NTFPs are products other than timber, which are extracted from forests for human use.

In the African context, NTFPs can represent sizable markets. For instance, in the southwest and northwest provinces of Cameroon, the value of NTFP production and marketing was more than US$ 19 million in 1999, and contributed 2.8% to the regional economy.

NTFPs are harvested primarily by rural people, but urban dwellers and the African diaspora in Europe and North America sustain market demand for these products. In urban markets, eru (Gnetum africanum), has highly valuable leaves used as nutritious green vegetables in Cameroon.

It is well known that several NTFPs collected in tropical forests are potent cures for many diseases. Pharmaceutical uses of NTFPs also generate the most significant revenues.

Timber

Timber extraction already provides countries in the region with considerable income, and can also generate revenues for forest communities if carried out responsibly. To find out more, go to the logging section.

This list of services and benefits provided by the Congo Basin forests is by no means exhaustive. In fact, a full encyclopaedia would probably not even do it justice. But it does give us an insight into the importance of keeping these forests alive for generations to come.


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1 Laurance W.F. 1999. Gaia's lungs: Are rainforests inhaling earth's excess carbon dioxide? Natural History (April), p. 96.
 2 Vourlitis G., N.Priante Filho, M.M.S.Hayashi, J.S.Nogueira, F.T.Caseiro and J.H.Campelo Jr. 2002. The role of seasonal variations in meteorology on the net CO2 exchange of a brazilian transitional tropical forest. In II Scientific Conference LBA (Large scale biosphere-atmosphere experiment in Amazonia), Manaus, 9-11 July, 2002.
 3 CARPE.2001. If the Forest Disappeared What Would We Lose and What Might We Gain? Congo River Basin Information Series. Issue Brief #8.

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