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OPINION: Examining the deforestation paradox for climate change mitigation in Africa

IPCC WGIII Lead Author Cheikh Mbow raises the concern of having international focus seemingly only on densely forested areas, while deforestation is a major threat in non-forest ecosystems.


Mitigation options in developing countries tend to address the reduction of emission through various forms of reforestation or forest/land use management. Many observers are often intrigued by the strong focus, the amount of investment and energy spent on pure dense humid forest such as the Congo Basin, Amazonia and Indonesia, particularly for the REDD+ programmes. In this important international commitment for better climate, why is that little attention given to none-forested lands? Is the value of a tree higher in the forest or outside the forest?

The recent Forest Resources Assessment of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) showed that forest cover represents 674 mio. ha, or 23% of the African continent, but other wooded lands are very significant and represent 350 mio. ha, or 12%. If we add to that, the large areas with substantive tree cover such as agroforestry zones the proportion of land with trees outside forests are vitally important both for the dynamics of the climate but also for livelihood because of the many socio-economic activities in these areas.

National parks in Africa

Location of national park across the continent. The non-forested ecological zones have a high density of conservation sites.

Additionally these none-forested lands are potential places for substantial tree cover increase, hence more carbon sequestration. These wooded land covers are areas for meat production, game, wildlife conservation. The human density is higher in these areas and yet the challenges to improve land system to be resilient to climate change and to contribute to the global mitigation effort is a challenge that the community should give equal or more attention than the well conserved forest. The Global Environmental Outlook 5 points out that threat on biodiversity are higher in these areas than in pure forested land of the Congo Basin.  GBO-3 recognised many tipping points for biodiversity loss in these humanised areas yet with much less forest resources than the dense humid forest.

The current international agendas for climate change mitigation in the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sector should be looking primarily at livelihood and then carbon potential as a co-benefit. Deforestation affects people in many ways. It reduces the ecosystems ability to deliver goods and services to natural resource-dependent communities. Communities in Africa are largely dependent to forest source for energy and building materials. The non-timber products of the natural vegetation are central sources of survival because of the high nutritional value of wild fruits and importance of medicinal plants. Deforestation will reduce ecosystem resilience to climate hazards and vanish many cultural values connected with ecosystems functioning. Additionally, it is important to note that the poorest people, the most vulnerable they are. The consequences of deforestation usually turn into causes of cascaded degradation effects especially by erosion, barren lands, degenerated woodland, overgrazing, sand invasion, and population migrations that compromise development efforts. Hence, the effects of poverty and desertification impact together and are mutually reinforcing.

Therefore, the primary target of REDD+ and similar initiatives should be where forest resources undergo severe pressures and where trees can make a difference in daily survival of communities. While the general trend is to see forest cover continuing to decline in many African countries, at a regional scale there are important sub-regional differences and in most cases countries with low forest cover have higher deforestation rate as shown by last FRA 2010 report.

Drivers of deforestation are more severe in the other wooded land cover, mostly in savanna zones, where there are a number of threats and complex interaction among many drivers including agriculture, pastoralism, wood extraction and fires; these increasingly reduce vegetated land at a very rapid speed. Agriculture land expansion is the major driver of deforestation, and rapid forest lost. Farming activities are more prominent in “non-forested” land cover types and are combined with extensive pastoral activities. Those areas are also known for their dense populations. In the absence of mitigation measures, wooded lands in the non-forested zones will continue to give way to land needed to meet the demand for agriculture. The contribution of deforestation in these non-forest ecosystems is therefore as important as the dense forest because of important human factor and livelihoods in these productive areas.

Therefore the issue of reducing deforestation should be addressed with equal importance both in forested land and other wooded cover areas. To analyse the relevance of REDD+ in a given country, considering the forest cover context, we suggest a reconsideration of the approach by considering first and foremost the rate to deforestation as compared with the forest cover (a ratio between the two parameters could be an indicator of deforestation severity). It is safe to say that mitigation efforts that address deforestation and forest degradation are more relevant in areas with low forest cover and high deforestation rate and less relevant in high forest cover and low deforestation rate. Most of the mitigation and carbon sequestration programmes through REDD+ are established in well-conserved forest as compared to other wooded lands where high pressures and many drivers are tipping points for irreversible degradation.

This quick assessment of forest degradation and potential emission rate, raises the issues of REDD project location which is currently based on forest cover rather that deforestation trends in Africa. This raises the concern of having all the international focus only on dense forest while deforestation is a major threat in non-forest ecosystems.

Cheikh Mbow is a lead author in Chapter 11-AFOLU, WGIII for IPCC working as a senior Scientist on Climate Change and Development at ICRAF (World Agroforestry Centre). Dr Mbow previously worked at the University of Dakar Senegal and is member of the Future Earth.



  • Brink, A.B., Eva and H.D. (2009). “Monitoring 25 years of land cover change dynamics in Africa: A sample based remote sensing approach.” Applied Geography 29: 501-512.
  • FAO (2010). Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010. Rome, FAO.
  • FAO (2012). The state of the World’s Forests. Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations 64 p.
  • Mbow, C., Skole, D., Dieng, M., Justice, C., Kwesha, D., Mane, L., E. Gamri, M., V. Vordzogbe, V., Virji and H. (2012). Challenges and Prospects for REDD+ in Africa: Desk Review Of REDD+ Implementation in Africa. , GLP-IPO, Copenhagen.
  • Mbow, Cheikh, Smith, Pete, Skole, David, Duguma, Lalisa, Bustamante and Mercedes (2014). “Achieving mitigation and adaptation to climate change through sustainable agroforestry practices in Africa.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 6(0): 8-14.
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