West Africa: The Importance of Dry Forests

The West African dry forests evoke classic images of wild Africa: herds of buffaloes and elephants grazing though the scarce trees, followed by flocks of oxpeckers. These woodlands are fragile ecosystems that form a transition between the Sahel desert and the moist forests of Guinea-Congo. They are home to a large number of plants found nowhere else on earth (White ,1983), and provide diverse ecosystem goods and services to the large populations of humans and livestock that depend on them.

All the major river basins in sub-Saharan Africa are either located or have most of their headwaters in the woodlands. These forests therefore play a critical role in sustaining river flows and water supplies for irrigation, sanitation, hydropower, and human consumption on the continent. Their conservation is essential to combat desertification processes.

Forest degradation on the rise

Illegal and unsustainable, selective logging is a major driver of forest degradation. West African forests are home to several rosewood species that have been under extreme pressure since 2010, a consequence of growing demand from Asian markets. As recently as 2009, rosewood exports from the region were negligible. West Africa is now an essential supplier of rosewood to China by volume, representing 65% of imports recorded by the country by late 2015.

When trade drives illegal practices and brings support to rebel groups

The region’s new role as a major provider of illegally sourced precious woods has given rise to a variety of illegal trade channels at the national and regional levels, in order to answer the skyrocketing “no questions asked” demand from China, Vietnam, and Thailand. The surge in illegal harvest and transport activity, and especially the cross-border smuggling in the triangle between Lagos (Nigeria), Dakar (Senegal), and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), is directly threatening regional forest governance and undermining the efforts of individual countries to balance conservation and development. Reports from field sources have indicated the connection between illegal rosewood trade and financing for rebel groups (especially in the Senegalese Casamance and in Cote d’Ivoire).

West African states thus play an essential role in avoiding socio-environmental crisis in the region. Regulations dedicated to the protection or sustainable use of the dry forest resources, and especially rosewood species, are paramount. The adequate enforcement of national laws that govern forest exploitation, forest products transport, trade, processing and exports is essential. Education and information programs are also vital for conserving these fragile forest ecosystems.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an important complementary avenue to address the transboundary nature of this illicit trade.

Opportunities for regional and international coordination

EIA’s approach in West Africa consists of gathering information and intelligence at the regional level about the illegal and unsustainable logging of rosewood species in order to understand and respond to major trends on the demand side, especially in China. The cross-border nature of the illegal timber trade in West Africa necessitates regional strategies and actions to support the enforcement of laws in nearby countries. At the international level, EIA is working to support the listing of vulnerable populations of rosewood on CITES to improve the control and regulation over international trade in these threatened species.