“Small forests in West Africa are unique in their composition”

Worldwide, changes in land use are putting tropical forests under pressure. At the same time, the potential of small forest patches to support biodiversity and climate protection is often underestimated – including in West Africa’s highly fragmented agricultural landscapes. The importance of such forests is now being highlighted by an ERC research project led by Chinwe Ifejika Speranza, professor at the University of Bern’s Institute of Geography and member of the CDE Board.

Chinwe Ifejika Speranza
“Our results clearly demonstrate that forests are in better condition in places where local institutions remain in intact”: Chinwe Ifejika Speranza. Photo: ga

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

You and your team studied multiple forest patches in the savannah and rainforest zones of four West African countries, analysing the role these forests play for biodiversity as well as for the local population. What inspired you to do this?

During my previous travels and research in West Africa’s highly fragmented agricultural landscapes, I noticed many small forests that appeared to be holding their ground despite the obvious agricultural pressure. I wanted to investigate this phenomenon in the context of the accelerating loss and degradation of West African forests. In conversations, local communities expressed their dissatisfaction with this trend, because the forests are important to their livelihoods and food security. They also provide habitat for numerous indigenous species, many of which are endangered. In this way, these small forests serve key ecological functions – but, despite their importance, they receive little research and policy attention.

This situation was the impetus for my project. I want to find out how these dynamics are playing out and under what conditions such forest areas have a future.


“Forest connectivity is important for wildlife migration”


Forests smaller than 1,000 hectares are not recorded in global observations and inventories of forest change. Why are they left off the agenda, even while deforestation is receiving a lot of attention?

Compared to the large rainforests in the Congo Basin or the Amazon, these forests are too small for most studies. Yet forests smaller than 1,000 hectares together make up about 24,000 square kilometres in the four countries we’re working in – Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon. That’s just over half the area of Switzerland. Viewed this way, small forests – even when fragmented – definitely contribute to biodiversity and also serve as carbon sinks. From a biodiversity perspective, it’s also vital to look at whether and how these forests are connected to each other. This is important because forest connectivity enables wildlife to migrate, among other things.

There are apparently numerous such mini-forests in West Africa. How high do you estimate their overall potential impact to be in terms of biodiversity and climate protection?

We’re still working on the analysis. So far, we’ve identified 420,464 forest patches between 0.5 and 1,000 hectares in size and quantified their loss of area and stock between 2000 and 2022.

screenshot map forest patches West Afrcia
Inventory of forest patches between 0.5 and 1,000 hectares in Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon (screenshot). For details click on the map. Source: https://www.sustainforests.giub.unibe.ch/forest-inventory-map/

While the number of forest patches declined by two per cent overall, the loss of total area was even more significant at six per cent. We also examined the structure of nine selected forests. As expected, forest patches in the dry savannahs of Togo and Benin were sparser than those in the tropical regions of Nigeria and Cameroon. This is explained by the climate, not by land management. And something else emerged.

Which is?

That these forests are unique in their composition of tree species. It’s true that we deliberately chose the nine forest patches in West Africa based on their different typologies – from savannah and swamp forests to the lowland forests of the Congo Basin. But if you want to preserve biodiversity, you shouldn’t just only designate protected areas. Instead, you should also pay attention to what composition of tree species is typical of a region and how people relate to the forests, and protect multiple areas accordingly.


“The survival of forests has a great deal to do with the people who live there”


Then is one of your goals to have these patches placed under protection?

Not formally in the sense of creating government protected areas. Rather, we need to collaborate with local communities. The survival of these forests has a great deal to do with the people who live and work there, and with their visions of these forests in the future.

Your research to date has shown that the forest structure in seven of the nine forest patches has deteriorated in recent years. Only two have been spared human interference. What has enabled some forests to improve while others deteriorate?  

The two forests that haven’t declined in size or quality were sacred forests and places of worship. Access to them is regulated by various traditional norms and institutions. For example, non-initiated people cannot enter the sacred part of these forests. Further, a sacred river runs through one forest, thereby forming a natural boundary that also hinders tree cutting.

sacred forest vs degraded forest patch
Left: An intact, sacred forest. Photo: Chinwe Ifejika Speranza ǀ Right: A degraded forest. Photo: Samuel Hepner

So, traditional religious beliefs and values shape the condition of forests?

Yes, but to varying degrees. Inaccessibility and remoteness can also reduce human disturbances. We studied another forest that is partly sacred and nonetheless heavily degraded. In this forest, there is a lack of clarity about ownership, which might be one reason for the human disturbances.


“In most traditional West African systems, land belongs to the community”


How so?

In West Africa, there are three different systems of land rights that partly overlap. In most traditional West African systems, land does not generally belong to one person or family – it belongs to the community. The community can grant use rights. In the course of West Africa’s colonization by Great Britain and France, individual land ownership was introduced and gradually became established. At the end of colonial rule, the West African countries adopted the British and French legal systems with some adjustments. However, since traditional systems continue to play a certain role in many regions, there can be mixed legal forms, which can lead to a lack of clarity, enabling individuals to interpret the rules in their own interest.

In addition to environmental impacts, your research has also examined the relevance of forest patches to local living conditions. Can such small forests really make a significant contribution to people’s livelihoods?

Yes, because they provide food to the local population. In addition to fruit, game meat, and fish or mussels, they also supply certain vegetables such as afang (Gnetum africanum), spices like West African black pepper (Piper guineense), and medicinal plants such as large-leaved mahogany (Khaya grandifoliola) and Senegalese mahogany (Khaya senegalensis). The latter are used against malaria, bacterial infections, and similar ailments. Some of these plants only thrive in certain parts of the forest and can only be gathered there. They form an important part of the local diet and medical care.


“Local forms of management must be recognized and supported”


In February, you organized a conference on the research findings to date. It was attended by representatives from the embassies of two countries where you studied forest patches. What is the political significance of this project for these countries?

Discussions about forests and deforestation tend to interest the authorities. This is because the topic is also linked to agricultural products for export like cacao, rubber, and palm oil. And it’s currently high on the agenda due to the new EU regulation on deforestation-free products. Our results are also useful to authorities because they illustrate the challenges that arise around the relationship between agriculture and forests.

It would be nice if the authorities could use the results of our research together with local communities to negotiate sustainable ways of using the forest.

Based on your research, what is the most important political course of action to ensure that forest patches are protected and used sustainably in these countries?

Recognizing and supporting the different local forms of management. Our results clearly demonstrate that forests are in better condition in places where local institutions remain in intact. The forests have been well maintained not for the sake of nature conservation, but rather for cultural reasons. So, local populations should be strengthened in their traditions and considered equal partners. International organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) see it similarly; but this perspective unfortunately hasn’t been fully embraced by governments yet.

Do your research findings also apply to other regions?

The results might also be relevant for the rest of West Africa. Further, some of the research methods we used could be transferred to small forests in other regions of the world.


For her project “SUSTAINFORESTS – Dynamics, functions, and sustainable management in agricultural landscapes of the West African forest and savannah zones”, Chinwe Ifejika Speranza was awarded research funding by the European Research Council (ERC) in 2020 in the form of a Consolidator Grant. The project began in June 2021 and will run until the end of May 2026. Interim results will be presented at the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos in June 2024.