Nature and Biodiversity

How to preserve Africa's forests and build a green economy

preserve-africa-forest

Gabon has become the first African country to be paid for protecting its rainforests. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Lauri Hetemäki
Assistant Director, European Forest Institute
Marc Palahí
Director, European Forest Institute
Lee White
Minister of Forests, Oceans, Environment, and Climate Change , Gabon
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Future of the Environment

  • Africa faces unprecedented challenges of rapid population growth and climate adaptation.
  • The continent is well positioned to harness nature-based solutions through sustainable forestry.
  • UN-backed project in Gabon proves it's possible to protect biodiversity and create jobs.

By 2055, the African population is expected to double from its current level to 2.7 billion. The continent is also projected to see the fastest rate of urban growth anywhere in the world: by 2050 Africa's cities will be home to an additional 950 million people. This is expected to take place at a time when African societies will need to transform their economies to address the unprecedented impacts of climate change and land degradation.

These challenges offer a series of important and game-changing opportunities if existing resources are put to better use. Most notably, Gabon has become the first African country to be paid for protecting its rainforests. As part of the deal struck in 2019, the UN backed Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) has handed over $17 million to the country – the first tranche of $150 million.

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If a socially fair transition to a “circular bioeconomy” can be harnessed – one in which resources are renewable, biologically based, sustainably managed and whenever possible, reused – the likely outcome for Africa will be immeasurably improved.

Differences between African and EU forest products

Africa’s forests account for about 21% of its total land area, roughly equal to those of North America or Asia, and four times bigger than the EU. Yet the export value of its forest products is many orders of magnitude smaller than any other region. Furthermore, the rate of net forest loss has been rapidly increasing over the past decade. In 2019, the export value of the EU's forest products was an astonishing 17 times greater than Africa’s, $100 billion compared to $6 billion. Yet in the same year Africa produced 54% more wood than the EU. What explains this discrepancy?

The first major reason is that Africa uses around 90% of the wood harvested for producing fuel wood and charcoal, for heating and cooking. In contrast, the EU uses most of its of its wood (75%) for industrial purposes, such as for pulp and packaging, and wood construction. The second reason is that Africa’s timber exports come in the form of logs. The combined result is that not only does Africa retain less than 10% of the value of its timber, but also the industry creates less than 10% of the potential jobs it could create if a greater share of finished and semi-finished products were produced and exported.

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Energy production needs to be diversified

Clearly, there is an urgent need to economise Africa's forest resources. But to make Africa less dependent on wood charcoal, a significant investment is also required to diversify energy production. There are numerous opportunities to invest in industrial wood processing, which at first glance may seem like a compromise with – perhaps even a betrayal of – the world's environmental objectives. But paradoxically the reality is quite different. In fact, the exact opposite is the case.

With sensible governance and strategies anchored in sustainability, investing more in innovative and higher added-value wood products will create the right incentives for individuals, communities and governments to better protect their forests. For instance, 353 million m3 of wood could be freed up for other purposes if the demand for wood energy was reduced by 50% through increased efficiency and the deployment of other renewable energy sources.

With the appropriate infrastructure and technology, one of these purposes could be to build more than five million new wooden apartments. That's the equivalent to approximately half of the projected annual demand for the whole of Africa in the coming 30 years. It would also help to store carbon in buildings for decades and significantly reduce emissions by substituting the high carbon intensity of concrete and steel.

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Sustainable forestry in Gabon

In Gabon, close to 90% of its land is covered by forest, and in the EU only Sweden has a greater forest area. In late 2009 Gabon banned the export of logs. The government took this decision because almost the entire timber industry had ignored the Gabonese Forestry Code adopted by Parliament in 2001. The Code had mandated a gradual transition towards more in-country processing, so that by 2009 at least 60% of logs were to have been processed in this way. But when the time came, the actual figure was just 15%.


The government's long-term response was both creative and exemplary. With a vision to multiply the number of forest jobs and the sector's economic output by a factor of 10, it created a special economic zone specializing in timber processing just 20km outside the capital, Libreville. All of Gabon's commercial forests were pressed into full production, augmented by new plantations.

Success could be replicated

Today almost 100 timber plants are transforming waste hardwood into activated charcoal, while softer wood waste goes to the region's first ever particle board factory. Over 10,000 direct jobs for young people – of both sexes – have been created, jobs which previously would have gone to Europe or Asia.

Furthermore, in 2018 the government decided that International Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is to become mandatory for the timber sector by 2022. And crucially, Gabon now absorbs about 100 million net tons of CO2 every year, with one of the best High Forest Low Deforestation (HFLD) scores of all tropical countries.

Gabon has therefore created the foundations of a successful industrial ecosystem for alternative uses of timber. It's no wonder that in 2020 the system was hailed by the Financial Times as the best “special economic zone” for timber products throughout Africa.

The question the world, not just Africa, must now answer is: can this success be replicated across the continent? Is the international community bold enough to invest in sustainable forestry so that local jobs can be created and forests can be better protected? If they are, then Gabon is a shining example for other countries to follow suit.

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Nature and BiodiversityGeographies in Depth
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