Forests without borders: Regional integration in West Africa as a prerequisite for climate change

Updated: May 31

Forest in Cote d'Ivoire (©UN-REDD Programme)

Although forests are physically located within the territories of sovereign states, their environmental role extends far beyond these borders. For example, the mismanagement of riparian forests has transboundary implications in terms of soil and water conservation and biodiversity for neighbouring countries. Likewise, airborne pollutants generated in one country may be transported across borders, causing forest decline in others. The role of forests in global ecological cycles highlights the environmental significance of forests beyond the boundaries of the nations. In this context, they are being viewed as global or regional commons, as is the case in West Africa.

West Africa is a region rich in wildlife and forest biodiversity. Within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), its 15 member countries host approximately 66.85 million hectares of forests, corresponding to 13 percent of the total land area. West Africa’s forests are fundamental to improving local livelihoods, as they represent the main source of wood energy, timber and lumber for a population estimated at nearly 234 million. They also provide locals with a variety of non-timber forest products that contribute to improving food security, health and household incomes.

In spite of that, the rate of deforestation and forest degradation across the region between 2000 and 2015 was more than 13%, or about 704,000 hectares per year, 1.5 times the size of Cabo Verde. A key driver of this forest loss is unsustainable agricultural expansion. Guinea, Liberia, Benin and Sierra Leone all experienced a net loss in forest area while also seeing growth in agricultural area (FAO, State of the World's Forests, 2016).

An example of particular concern is the Upper Guinean Rainforest, which covers countries like Côte d’Ivoire, the Ghana, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In total, the forest covers approximately 39 million hectares of the Guinean-Congolian ecological zone, a key transboundary biodiversity hotspot that supports the livelihoods of millions of people. The ecosystem is highly fragmented, with large forest areas currently protected in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Liberia. These forests, however, remain under considerable pressure from human encroachment and unsustainable practices, including illegal logging.

Women gathering wood in Cote d’Ivoire (©UN-REDD Programme)

Working Together to Improve Forest Management in West Africa

In response to the decline of forest cover in West Africa, ECOWAS countries have agreed to work together across borders to protect and manage the region’s forests and wildlife.

In 2012, the Convergence Plan for the Sustainable Management and Use of Forest Ecosystems in West Africa was developed to tackle transboundary issues that West African states face in achieving efficient and sustainable forest and wildlife resource management. Other relevant regional instruments include the Common Environmental Policy (2008), the Common Agricultural Policy (2008) and the Renewable Energy Policy (2012). As a result of the adoption of the Convergence Plan, 13 out of 15 countries have developed, with FAO-ECOWAS support, national forest investment plans to support its implementation.

But the question about how to ensure the effectiveness of these policies remains. At the national level, the agriculture-forestry nexus, as well as the enabling of legal policies and institutional frameworks, are needed to ensure the improvement of forest conservation and livelihoods. The role of local communities in forest-law compliance and formal recognition of land rights varies across the sub-region but holds the potential to address illegal logging and agricultural encroachment. Certain countries are also aiming to adapt national forest codes to new decentralization policies. At the same time, international and regional agreements taking into account a human rights approach to protecting the environment, water, biodiversity and forests are becoming a priority for legislators and national parliaments.

For the reasons stated above, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), ECOWAS and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have recently launched the project, “Global Transformation of Forests for People and Climate: a focus on West Africa.” The five- year initiative aims to strengthen decision making on forests and land management across West Africa by improving knowledge of forest dynamics, supporting cross-sectoral legal reform and demonstrating and sharing the best community-based and gender-balanced forest practices across the region. The project also seeks to contribute to the 2025 Vision of ECOWAS Heads of State to “turn West Africa into an area without borders where citizens will benefit from opportunities and develop, in a sustainable way, the enormous resources of the region.”

Forests of West Africa recognize no borders. But as policies and legal and institutional structures vary country by country, an increasing number of stakeholders are looking at transboundary forest management as a practical way to overcome these differences. Strong partnerships will allow countries, organizations and local communities to take concrete steps towards improved forest management in the region. This will build on the momentum created in recent years to safeguard West Africa's forests.


Francesca Felicani-Robles

Forestry Officer in the Legal Forestry Department at FAO

Thomas Woolnough

Programme Specialist at FAO

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