Protecting forests and alleviating poverty in Central Africa

Geographical location:

Africa/Madagascar > Africa General

Africa/Madagascar > Central Africa > Cameroon
Africa/Madagascar > Central Africa > Central African Republic
Africa/Madagascar > Central Africa > Congo
Africa/Madagascar > Central Africa > Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaïre)
Africa/Madagascar > Central Africa > Equatorial Guinea
Africa/Madagascar > Central Africa > Gabon

Pygmy woman of the BaAka tribe making a basket. Central African Republic and Cameroon.
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY


Central Africa is rich in natural resources. Millions of people in the region depend on the forest, which provides food, medicinal plants and wildlife for local consumption as well as for export. Most central African countries have adopted sustainable forest management policies. However, their implementation is generally poor because of lack of resources and institutional capacity. In addition, political and social unrest in some countries has had negative effects on forest resources.

WWF is working with other organizations and local communities to improve peoples’ livelihoods in the region through safeguarding natural forests and strengthening the sustainable management and use of natural resources.


Socio-cultural and economic aspects:

With around 89.5 million people, the central African region harbours 11% of the total population of Africa (815 millions). This population can be divided over several hundred different people, of which the majority is linguistically closely related (Niger-Congo languages) and referred to in the anthropological literature as the Bantu. Another group is formed by the so-called Pygmies (Bagyeli, Baka, Twa, etc) with an estimated number of 300,000 people, scattered around the region. The various people of the Nilo-Saharan language group form a linguistic minority. The region is not a uniform political or socio-economic entity. The average population density is relatively low and unequally distributed (e.g. Gabon 6 persons per km2, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 20 persons per km). Far out the largest number of people (approx. 52 million) lives in DRC. Urbanisation has taken a high speed over the last decades - multiplied by five in recent times - due to continued outward rural migration and strong natural population growth (average 48% annual growth of cities in 2000). Urban populations are approximately as large as rural ones while in countries like Cameroon, DRC and Gabon this 50% threshold has already been passed. The largest cities in Central Africa are Kinshasa (5 million) in DRC, Douala (1.6 million) and Yaoundé (1.4 million) in Cameroon.

Commercial logging is the primary source of revenue from central African forests. This is mainly carried out by foreign logging companies and thus ensures (theoretically) substantial amounts of foreign exchange for the countries of the sub-region.


Central Africa is an important forested sub-region with approximately 57% of its area covered with natural forests. It contains the largest remaining contiguous expanse of moist tropical forest on the African continent (approx. 35%) and the second largest in the world (after the Amazon forest). This quasi-uniform forested cover encompasses Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo, the majority of Cameroon and DRC as well as a small part of the Central African Republic (CAR). DRC is by far the largest country of the sub-region with more than 226 million hectares of land. Burundi and Rwanda are among the smallest countries of central Africa and the continent.

The ecoregions distinguish over 10 tropical moist forest types in this region, ranging from mangroves in the coastal areas of Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and DRC, various lowland rainforests (including large tracts of swamp forest localised for the greatest part in the eastern Congo and western DRC), and tropical montane forest ecosystems (Rwanda, Burundi, Cameroon and DRC). Of these forest ecosystems, 7 are considered of critical importance for conservation. Next to its global biodiversity value, the central African forests have important hydrological and climatic functions, which have an impact on a much larger part of the African continent and even further, the forests being considered as an important carbon storage site.

Forest resource knowledge is relatively low and most of central African forest inventories cover only part of the productive forest domain (Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Rwanda, and CAR. Most of the research is only in its first stages. Until now, plants, butterflies and most vertebrates have received more attention than others have. Nevertheless, even these groups, or parts thereof, are not completely known. The Albertine Rift forests in eastern DRC, Uganda and Rwanda, for example, appear to contain an exceptional plant endemism but little studies have taken place so far. In the last decades a number of scientifically important new discoveries were made in Gabon, including 15 new species of Begonia, a newly described large tree species and a very distinctive monkey.

Natural resources and legislation:

Central Africa is rich in natural resources which play an important role as a reservoir for the export of raw materials to the industrialised nations. In particular wood and minerals (petroleum, cobalt, copper etc) are the main exports. The uses of the forest are multiple, including non-wood forest products collection, and vary from low-impact harvesting to high intensive commercial logging. Because of its natural riches, an estimated number of 65 million people live in and off these forest areas. These communities depend on wild and cultivated resources from forests, including vegetables, fruits, flowers, honey, resins, fungi, medicinal plants and wildlife for local consumption as well as for export. Inter-cropping or agro-forestry practised within these communities is a vital source of vegetables, grains and fruit, for use by households or for trade. These people are often poor to very poor while their number is increasing. Their demand on the forest is thereby increasing as well. Conservation for long-term use in these situations is usually considered a luxury rather than a priority. Increasingly, products are now also harvested for city markets, e.g. medicinal plants and meat from hunted or poached animals (bushmeat).

The rain forests of Central Africa and their biological and cultural diversity are threatened in many places from a large number of internal and external factors usually of economic dimension. These factors can be direct (agriculture, urbanisation, mining, etc) and indirect (population growth, poverty, international market fluctuations, etc). The principal cause of deforestation in dense forests is agriculture (shifting cultivation and cash crops). Natural resources around periurban zones are subject to high pressure from urban area expansion and utilisation for fuel wood and building materials. Commercial logging is often selective and leads mainly to forest degradation rather than deforestation. Degradation can lead to depletion of commercial species on the short term. However, more important are the side effects of logging, especially the opening up of forest areas through the construction of logging roads, encouraging people to settle and convert forested lands into agriculture.

All central African countries have adopted sustainable forest management policies. However, their implementation is generally poor because of lack of resources and institutional weaknesses. In addition, for some of these countries, political and social unrest during the last decade has had negative effects on forest resources. Central African countries have legally established forest areas under protection. There is considerable amount of legislation relating to protected areas at national levels but a large part of it is out of date and, in many cases, sufficient resources and mechanisms to ensure effective implementation are lacking. Within the borders of protected areas as well as outside, the implementation of measures for the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainability of the many uses of nature and natural resources by humans are often difficult to achieve. Among the main causes which may prevent implementation of a sound forest management based on the existing legal framework can be mentioned: (1) discrepancies between local traditions regarding wildlife and other forest resources on one side and modern legislation pertaining to the conservation of areas and species on the other (modern administrations have too often destroyed local management structures and disempowered traditional resource users); (2) lack of knowledge among local communities about the goals of conservation, of protected area boundaries, of protected species, and of wildlife and hunting legislation; (3) neglect of socio-economic, ethnic and/or traditional aspects by the authorities involved; (4) under-staffing of local government departments which are in charge of aspects of forest management; (5) under-staffing, under-payment and under-equipment of protected area personnel, leading to corruption at various levels; (6) lack of public awareness concerning the importance of biodiversity conservation among decision makers.

Existing programme and strategies:

The 3 organisations that collaborate to execute a TMF-funded programme in Central Africa, and particularly in Cameroon, are directly represented in the field, and/or have developed a partnership with a number of local organisations. For WWF- Netherlands, the link is obviously through WWF CARPO in Yaoundé, Cameroon, which executes a number of activities with funds raised, among others, in the Netherlands. For the Committee of IUCN-Netherlands, direct links are developed through the Regional Office of IUCN for Central Africa (BRAC) in Yaoundé and through its small grants to the Tropical Rainforest Programme (TRP) benefiting a great number of local NGO's. For Milieudefensie the relations pass through the representatives of Friends of the Earth International in Cameroon, the Centre for Environment and Development (CED) inYaoundé. This organisation concentrates on forest issues in Cameroon but is becoming progressively involved in sub-regional activities.

Since a strategic choice has been made to deal with these organisations only at this stage of the programme, building on existing activities in Cameroon in the first place, an analysis was made of the respective programmes of these Cameroon based partners with reference to the strategic objectives as described in the outline of the programme. It is quite evident that the 3 partners are quite complementary in their activities and approaches. The potential strengthening cooperation and improving synergy is promising. However, there is quite a difference in organisational culture between the 3 partners. It will require a major effort of all 3 to capitalise on their complementarity as well as enhance potential synergy over the entire programme by a coordination of the activities and where appropriate a harmonisation of the approaches within CAFPAP.


Improve local livelihood through the sustainable management and use of natural resources by safeguarding natural forests and restoring forest functions.

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