[Inter Press Service (IPS) Cotonou, Senegal, April 3, 2007]
Where does a four-fold increase in a country's population over half a century make itself felt most acutely? Concerning Senegal, the answer to this might well be: in the forests. At the time of independence in 1960, the West African country was home to three million people. By 1976, the figure had increased to seven million, while in July 2006 it stood at some 11.9 million. This quadrupling of the population in 47 years has led to an increase in the amount of land under cultivation, rising demand for firewood and charcoal, and accelerated urbanisation.
The result: Senegal loses about 350,000 hectares of its forests annually to fires that are frequently started to clear land for farming, and more than 80,000 hectares for agricultural needs, according to the Centre for Environmental Preservation (Centre pour la sauvegarde de l'environnement, CSE).
The average number of trees per hectare in the country, estimated at more than 250 during the colonial era, dropped to less than 20 trees per hectare by 1995, says the CSE -- this in a study titled 'Phenomena of Drought and Desertification in Senegal' ('Phénomènes de la sécheresse et de la désertification au Sénégal'), commissioned in 2006. "Senegal has long since passed the threshold of the sustainable exploitation of its forest resources," observes Mansour Fall, an agricultural scientist.
This situation can spell disaster in a country already at a disadvantage because of scarce, sporadic rains -- and where drought, as Swedish geographer Tod Nicholson has written, "is a permanent threat." Senegal forms part of the Sahel, which extends from the Sahara to Equatorial areas. The region has only one rainy season, which rarely exceeds four months.
Slight irregularities in rainfall can have serious consequences for crops, vegetation and animals. The serious drought that took place between 1971 and 1990, one of the worst in Senegal's history, quickly saw early signs of desertification, such as soil erosion. Across the length and breadth of the country, thousands of hectares of forests withered, particularly in the Senegal River valley and the Lingère region in the north. Expanses of oil palms, such as those at Niayes in the Thiès region in the centre-west of the country, disappeared almost completely.
Various governments grasped the dangers posed by desertification and initiated programs to protect and restore forests, often through planting trees to meet timber and firewood needs. Planting also took place around marshy areas to provide a buffer against sandstorms. According to the CES, similar efforts were made around the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and to shield crops -- such as those in Niayes.
But, it has sometimes been a case of two steps forward, three steps back. While 213 wooded areas covering millions of hectares currently exist in Senegal, a number of these have now been severely compromised by human activity, says the CSE -- prompting a renewed drive for reforestation, supported by the international community. Projects are planned with a view to involving communities living alongside forests, to ensure that progress is maintained.
At the same time, the Senegalese government has tried to limit forest exploitation for domestic needs through initiatives to improve household energy use and to promote the use of gas -- as well as through raising the price of firewood and charcoal.
According to Fall, firewood and charcoal provide for 63 percent of the country's energy requirements, while petrol imports cover the remaining 37 percent.
Map courtesy of SITES ATLAS