The Exploitation, Protection And Management Of Forests In The Gambia

Mamos Media

By Muhammed L Bojang

Forestry is big business in Africa, but could it be the lifeblood of the post-COVID-19 present government that is struggling to break free of its past.

In 2017 Gambia’s ex-leader Yahya Jammeh was flown out of the country he ruled for 22 years and into exile. It brought to an end to a protracted political crisis following presidential elections. The new government came into power in the most dramatic Presidential Election in the history of Africa, defeating the most brutal dictator of his generation with the hope of taking the country on 3 years of transition. Promises today still not yet realized, that is a clean up of the civil service and the old policies in the security sector where there appears little action to create Jobs for half of the unemployed populace, dominated by the typical electoral cycle beyond the Constitutional 5 years mandate. (December 2016 – December 2021)

The actual rate of forest degradation permits no further delay in undertaking immediate action. If this action fails and the recent trend continues, the Gambian natural forests will have disappeared before they are brought under controlled management, and the chance of preserving the indigenous flora and fauna and using its manifold products has been lost. This would have an extremely detrimental effect on the welfare of the Gambian population. 

At the turn of the century, The Gambia was still covered by dense and almost impenetrable forests. With increasing population, the equilibrium between man and nature was disturbed, and a vicious cycle of forest destruction was initiated, carrying with its negative impacts on soil erosion, soil fertility, water resources, forage and biodiversity. The main cause of this cycle was a bush fire in combination with shifting cultivation and uncontrolled fuel-wood exploitation. 

Since 1984 the Forestry Department has been establishing a natural forest management model with technical assistance provided by the German government. Management of natural forests within the forest parks (state-owned forest) has been developed and tested up to a stage advanced enough to be multiplied in the other forest parks. 66 forest parks in total exist in The Gambia, covering an area of approximately 34,000 ha or about 7% of the estimated 489,000 ha of total forest area. It was soon recognized that the cost and the staff required by the Forestry Department to manage all forest parks and other forests could not be realistically sustained in the long-term and that the only feasible way to stop forest destruction was to involve the local population in forest management and protection of the forests.
Unfortunately, at that time, unfavourable conditions such as expanding agricultural production (groundnut), institutional set-ups and little knowledge in natural forest management, did not allow the introduction of community forestry. At the end of the ’80s, the framework conditions became more favourable, and a community forestry model was developed and successfully tested and finally institutionalised in the late ’90s.

Forestry activities are closely interrelated with farming activities including livestock husbandry, and therefore cannot be viewed in isolation. Furthermore, forestry planning and development has to be seen in the context of population growth and pressure. Equally important is the educational level of the population and its ability to recognize and understand those linkages, and to take-up necessary actions aimed at restoring the balance. 

This calls for an integrated approach, which is beyond the mandate of the Forestry Department (FD). Thus, requesting assistance is necessary at execution and implementation levels. On the other hand, besides financial constraints, the rate of forest degradation does not leave enough time to build up a capable and sufficiently extensive forestry service that assists communities in taking over the responsibility of managing the Gambian forest.

Therefore, the FD has decided to develop a simplified approach to community forestry to cover a larger area with a limited number of staff. This simplified approach has also been proposed due to the demand for rural involvement in community forestry and the good level of participation. 

NGOs and other agencies need to be involved to supplement the effort made by the FD. Some of them are already participating in community forestry activities. 

The involvement of local people in forest management and the sharing of benefits from forest utilization will help to alleviate poverty in rural areas.

The Gambian government has expressed its commitment to the preservation of its flora and fauna on numerous occasions and has demonstrated this commitment through the formulation of a new and adapted forest policy and development strategies.

The new policy recognizes and contributes to the poverty alleviation effort of the government by calling for the involvement of the private sectors and local communities in the management and development of a healthy forestry sector. The Gambian Forest Management Concept (GFMC) was developed and introduced in 1995 to provide the framework for forest management in The Gambia. 
According to the result of the forest inventory conducted in 1997/98, the forested area has slightly increased compared to 1981/82, but the overall forest condition has become worse.

How much of the forests were destroyed in The Gambia?

In earlier inventories in The Gambia, ‘forest’ was defined at a lower forest cover percentage. For example, tree and shrub savanna (one of the largest categories in all of The Gambia accounting for 31% of the total land-use area in the 81/82 inventory), while defined as “tree and shrub vegetation on freely drained soils with less than 10% tree cover or tree heights less than 11 meters” is considered to be “forests” in the overall inventory analysis from that period.

Therefore, in comparing results between years, it becomes necessary to group categories according to previous definitions and includes the broader “forest” definition (e.g. including tree and shrub savanna). 

Area comparisons between the 1981/82 inventory and the 2009/10 illustrate the 
following: The results of the 1981/82 inventory indicate 505,300 ha of the total forest area or 44% of the total area of Gambia (1,130,000 ha). 

The NFA conducted from 2009-2010 if adjusted to include the same classes identified as “forests” in the 1981/82 inventory (including tree and shrub savanna forest area which is considered as non-forest in the 2010 NFA) indicates roughly 423,000 ha or 37% of the total area of The Gambia. This means that since 1983, 7% of forest cover has been lost. One of the most significant losses (accounting for 73% of the overall forest loss) has occurred I mangroves, which were previously estimated to approximately 67,000 ha, and are now estimated to be 35,700 ha for a total loss of roughly 47% of their previous cover.

In yearly terms, this translates to 1,080 hectares of mangroves lost each year, an alarming rate of decline over the last 30 years.

Although the methodologies applied in the two National Forest Inventories are different, the Land Use Classes can be compared by grouping them. Illustrating that in the NFA of 2009/10, the total area of Forest and Other wooded land summed up to 423,000 ha while the 1997/98 NFI revealed that the total area for Closed woodland, Savannah woodland and Tree and Shrub Savannah ummed up to 520,000 ha. 

These results, therefore, indicate that there is a net decrease of 97,000 ha of forest and other wooded lands from 1997/98 to 2009/10.

It is assumed that the main factors responsible for the decrease could be attributed to the following: 

 Agricultural expansion; 
 Bushfires 
 Drought 
 Settlement/encroachment 
 Road construction. 

The increase of population in The Gambia in the last decade coupled with the exchange in traditional farming to mechanised agricultural practices have resulted in an increased demand on the land thus the conversion of some forest and other wooded lands to agricultural lands to satisfy the demand. This is manifested by the increase of the agricultural land indicated by the results of the NFA, 2009/10 over that of 1997/8 NFI. 

The increase in population has also resulted in high pressure on forest areas for settlement purposes. This is also well manifested by the 2009/10 land Use/Cover map in comparison to the Land Use maps from 1993 (DL&S). The farmers and settlers adjacent to the forest encroached into these areas for settlement and farming activities. 

The forest and another wooded land also suffered from road network construction and development. The construction and expansion of highways and numerous feeder roads have its toll on part of the forest and other wooded land areas thus resulting in the reduction of these covers. 

While the area covered by mangrove was estimated from aerial photographs in the NFI of 1987/98, in the NFA of 2009/10, the area of the mangroves was based on an assessment on the ground. As only a few tracts fell in this land cover type, their areas could very well be underestimated. 

The 1981/82 inventory, however, included field assessments of high mangroves (Rhizophora spp.) and estimated low mangroves (Avicennia spp.) using aerial image interpretation. So in this case, it is more feasible to compare the 2009/10 inventory results with the 1981/82 results. 

When compared over these two periods, we see a loss of just under half of the mangrove land use cover (47%). Even mangrove area statistics acquired during the 1997/98 inventory via aerial interpretation indicates a loss of mangroves from 1981/82.

The Statistic Of The Forests Detection, The Rate Of Destruction In The Gambia In The Past Decades.

The rate of forests depletion and destruction are factored on so many issues ranging from Fire, etc as many lacks that’s attitudes and desire in protection on the forests as many took it for fetching their daily bread. 

Major Causes Of Bush Fire In The Gambia

Results indicate that the clearing of new land is assumed as the major causes of bushfires in The Gambia. Other major causes assumed are hunting, border controls, hunting etc.

clearing of weeds and others.

Cause of Bush fire % 

Clearing of new land                         31 
Hunting                                               13 
Border control                                    10 
Clearing of weeds and residues      10 
Others                                                  10 
Pasture regrowth                                 8 
Smoking                                                8 
Access to forest products                  5 
Pest/wildlife control                            5

Frequency Of Fire In Forests In The Gambia

Among the area of forest affected by fire, results show that 79% of experiences fires once or more times each year. Only 12% of the forest gets burnt once every two years while 8% gets burnt once every five years and 1% of the forest area experience fires once every ten years. These figures indicate that fires continue to be a serious problem for forests in The Gambia and therefore more efforts are needed to reduce them.

Major Products Obtained From Forest 

Results confirm that the population of The Gambia obtains a variety of products from the forest.
 Among the most harvested products from the forest are Fuel-wood (19%), Plants food (17%), Construction material (15%), Tea/herbs (11%) and Medicinal plants (10%).
 Results are shown below and are expressed in terms of percentage of weight

Major Services From Forests %

Similarly to the products mentioned above, the forest also provides a numbeseverales to the Gambian people. 
The most important include: Windbreak, Grazing and Shade and Soil and Water conservation. These results yet again show the importance of forests to the livelihood of local communities.

Forest Products Harvested Per Region 

Results indicate that the most common forest product harvested is fuelwood, with high percentages of utilization in all regions. Industrial wood is primarily utilized in the Western Region (53%) while in the other Regions utilization accounts on average for slightly over 20%. Wood carving is predominantly practised in Lower River Region 15% followed by Western Region (10%) and Upper River Region (8%). Although charcoal production is banned in The Gambia, the population continues to use charcoal in their houses. Some of the charcoal is dubbed unauthorized for the fact that it is illegally brought to the country or illegally produced within the country. In terms of charcoal utilization per Region, WR is utilizing more (7%) then CRR (6%) and NBR / LRR (5%). All the other Regions utilize from 2 – 5% of charcoal.

User Group By Forest Products Harvested 

Based on the National Forest assessment results, Communities and Individuals in The Gambia use more fuel-wood than any other forest products 72% and 55% respectively while Government and other Institutions use more of Industrial wood (86%).

Conflicts In Harvesting Products 

Results indicate that while harvesting of forest products is done by households there are sometimes conflicts in harvesting these products. Major causes of conflicts arise from Human, Livestock, Wildlife or several other causes.

User Group By Forest Products Harvested 

Results indicate that Communities and Individuals in The Gambia use more fuel wood than any other forest products (72% and 55% respectively) while Government / Institutions (private) use more of Industrial wood (86%). 
Here the Department of Forestry is the issuance of a license to applicants to fell trees. This is another evidence of high dependency on wood products from the forest in the country and hence the need for more protection and development of the forest resources.

Forest Management Activities Per Region 

To achieve its Policy Objectives, over the years the Department of Forestry has initiated activities of Participatory Forest Management (PFM) in the whole country with support from partners.

This initiative has seemed to pay dividends for the fact that the results now indicate some interesting statistics on forest activities conducted per Region. Results show that forest management activities are currently carried out in all the regions and the most common activities conducted across all regions are fire fighting, tree planting and sensitization.

Could The Gambia match the forests growth and production of New Zealand?

Thus, is a question marking the unattainable feat for the tiny West African country looking at the population of over 90% who are living below the global recommended poverty line and in that case forests became an avenue for survival to many. They see it has an easy way of providing food and other basic and essential need through firewood, timber and charcoal to stay alive.

Investment is needed along with proper government policies, The Gambia without help has zero chance of matching the growth of the forest and production of New Zealand, however, managed Chinese investment could potentially lift the nation from poverty with sustainable newly planted forests.

What are the chances and potential for a long term sustainable forestry industry and grow employment in the Gambia?

The Gambia has little chance without foreign assistance and investment of pulling itself up by its bootstraps. The Gambia seeks to develop sustainable forests industry yet both technical skill and lack of government concern for the environment is not helping lift the level of poverty; still today at an alarming rate. Now that the communities are taking ownership of the forests within their jurisdiction and embarking on the annual rainy season tree planting exercises, the country is still behind as the rate of bush fires and logging the timber is on the increase. Neither the government nor the communities are equipped to remedy the decades of forests destruction and depletion.

The participation of people in forest management is a pre-requisite. 

The Gambia Forestry Management Concept (GFMC) adheres to the following principles: 
• To conserve the existing forest areas; 
• To manage these forests according to the principle of natural forest management in a sustainable, ecologically adapted and socially accepted way; 
• To minimize the cost for management and conservation by using the resource’s capacity of self-regeneration and to improve its production capacity with a minimum of silvicultural inputs; 
• To hand over responsibility and management functions to communities and other managers to minimize government input in terms of man-power and finance; 
• To maximize economic returns by optimal use of forest products; and 
• To develop, test and introduce new techniques and methods designed to mitigate and/or eliminate interest conflicts between agriculture and forestry.

Is there any chance that The Gambia can restore its forests, to lift its economy into economic prosperity?

The Gambia has a chance but it is unattainable with lack of proper schooling on the management, control and protection is lacking and the government has been equipped with the implementation of forests policies and also using funds through the lucrative Rosewood business which has brought so many thick forests in West Africa to hunting farmlands with the Chinese US$ dollar. The Gambia has a very slim chance of restoring its forests and ecosystem to the virgin forest.

The Gambia has been the poorest and smallest non-island country in west Africa there is an obvious certainty of serious financial penalties and consequences of this novel coronavirus pandemic on the livelihood of so many. Gambians may be over 90% of the population who live on hand-to-mouth conditions with no guarantee or certainty of the next day’s meal. So this pandemic appears it will take over killing off hopes of the regeneration of the forests. So many people have already turned to the forests to put food on the plate for their families ranging from firewood selling to charcoal and timber, there is always a high demand in the local markets.

Corruption is only ever addressed by re-education programs, in the 21st century of Africa, the countries future awaits such government initiatives. The government of the Gambia has used the forests for the lucrative Chinese money on the Rosewood trade which in great demand in West Africa, and more so in The Gambia.  The question remains can the government of The Gambia make forests an avenue for sustainable jobs creation to assist reactivate the economy the country?

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