Past, present and future perspectives


Between 1990 and 2000 Eastern Africa lost 9 per cent of its total forest and woodland cover (FAO 2001a). The highest rates of deforestation were experienced in Burundi (9 per cent per year), Rwanda (4 per cent per year), and Uganda (2 per cent per year) (FAO 2001a). This is not, however, a recent problem as the forests of the sub-region have been under pressure from population growth and increasing demand for fuel and for agricultural land for decades. In Uganda, for example, it is estimated that forests 'originally' (i.e. around 1890) covered 45 per cent of the country but now account for only 21 per cent (MUIENR 2000, FAO 2001a). Similarly, Ethiopia's woodlands and bushland originally covered 30 per cent of the country but now represent around 4 per cent and some of the remaining forest areas are categorized as heavily disturbed and unable to produce at their full potential (EPA/MEDC 1997, FAO 2001a). A study of forest cover and quality in Ethiopia showed that up to 70 per cent of forest cover was cleared or severely degraded by human impacts between 1971 and 1997 (EIS News 1999).

Clearance of forests and woodlands for agricultural use, to feed the growing population, is perhaps the single most important cause of deforestation in Eastern Africa even though large areas of the sub-region are considered not suitable for agriculture. For example, only 29 per cent of the land area in Ethiopia is considered suitable (EPA/MEDC 1997). The percentage is much smaller in Djibouti. To this pressure must be added the problem of declining soil fertility in cultivated areas, especially when production pressures do not allow adequate fallow periods. This causes further deforestation and encroachment by local communities and refugees, the impacts of which have been aggravated by weak policies (see Box 2d.4).

Box 2d.4 Encroachment in forest reserves of Uganda

In 1975 a group of people called the Kanani Co-operative Farmers Society entered Compartment 173 of Mabira Forest Reserve. The district administration perceived them as a self-help agro-forestry project rather than as encroachers and hence supported their activities. The Forest Department consequently gave cultivation permits to 115 of its members. The permits specified the following:

  • no more forested land would be cleared;
  • valuable timber tree species would not be destroyed; and
  • no buildings would be erected in the reserve.

However, confusion arose as to interpreatation of Uganda's 1976 Land Reform Order, which stated that 'land which is not under lease or occupation by customary tenure... is hereby specified to be land that may be occupied by free temporary license.' People might have taken this to mean that any Ugandan is free to settle anywhere, provided such land is not already occupied. By the end of 1977, 200 more encroachers had entered the reserve and the number grew to over 1800 by 1981. They degraded over 7241 hectares of the reserve.

In Mt. Elgon National Park, agricultural encroachment from 1970 through the 1980s laid bare over 25,000 hectares of what was initially virgin forest. In Kibale National Park, over 10,000 hectares of forest were cleared by encroachers. Other forest reserves that have been affected include Luung, Mubuku and Kisangi Forest Reserves in Kasese district and Kasyoha-Kitomi Forest Reserve in Bushenyi District.

Source: NEMA 1999

The people of Eastern Africa are largely dependent on wood for energy, with daily per capita consumption of around 1-2 kg (NEIC 1994, EPA/MEDC 1997). According to the FAO, the demand for fuelwood (including charcoal) in Eastern African countries will increase by over 40 per cent in the next 30 years, with total demand in 2030 exceeding 271 million m3/yr (FAO 2001b). Additional pressures on forests include extraction of timber for building materials, damage by forest fires and pests, and inappropriate forest policies or lack of their enforcement. Forestry departments in the sub-region have often been associated with those responsible for agriculture, water or environment and have been institutionally overshadowed. They have also often lacked the funding to implement regulations, conservation activities, or development of trade in forest products. Several countries are now in the process of correcting these institutional weaknesses. Uganda, for example, is transforming its Forestry Department from a line ministry into a parastatal to be known as the National Forest Authority (UFSCS 2000). Forest policies are also being reviewed, revised or new ones drafted in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.

The impacts of deforestation and degradation of wooded areas include increased potential soil erosion and loss of soil fertility, alteration of local climatic and hydrological conditions, and changes in biodiversity. Eastern Africa is home to the world's remaining population of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), in the Virunga Volcanoes. With a population of only about 320 individuals, mountain gorillas are one of two critically endangered subspecies of gorillas (the other subspecies is in Western Africa). The gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, previously thought to be mountain gorillas may, in fact, be a separate subspecies (Butynski 2001). The gorilla is under threat of extinction through habitat loss and disease brought about by the increasing proximity of humans resulting from the opening up of roads in forests, hunting and tourism. As a result of the conflicts in Rwanda, a massive increase in human traffic through the Virunga Volcanoes, and subsequent military presence are probably responsible for the presence of previously unidentified intestinal parasites found in the mountain gorillas (Butynski 2001). Loss of habitat combined with an increase in diseases is potentially disastrous for such a small population.

Excessive removal of wood for fuel removes vital nutrients from forests, as well as nesting material and shade for many species. Human demands on forest resources have resulted in wood deficiency leading to increased dependency on costly imports. Deficiency in fuelwood also forces people to walk further and spend longer in search of wood to meet their daily requirements and they are therefore turning to alternatives. There is, however, increasing concern over some of these. For example, agricultural crop residues and animal dung are meeting as much as 8 per cent of Ethiopia's energy requirements (EPA/MEDC 1997), but burning of these resources as fuel can give off noxious gases such as nitrogen and sulphur oxides which can cause respiratory disorders. Furthermore, these materials are principal sources of organic nutrients and as such are traditionally used as fertilizers. Removing them from the agro-forest ecosystem has direct adverse impacts on agricultural productivity.