Trees are critical to life on earth. They process our respiration and pollution into oxygen, enrich our soils and provide food and natural resources. In West Africa's damp climate, trees also store water, provide habitat and reduce erosion of precious top soils. Trees in the large deciduous forests form an integral part of life in West Africa, and are linked to traditional African values and traditions. They drive the economy and provide sustenance. West Africa's tree species and uses are diverse and important to all life in the region.
West Africa is comprised of 18 countries and several climate zones. eNotes has divided them into four major regions. The coastal region from Guinea-Bissau to Cameroon has a rainy season of six months. This area has huge forests of evergreen and deciduous trees. The arid savanna to the north, though drier than the coast, has ample rain to sustain huge stretches of grasses and rare trees. A semi-arid zone exists between the savanna and the Sahara desert. It is called the Sahel and has a dry season which lasts more than nine months. The fourth zone is the Sahara desert.
In the early 1970s, there was a drought in the Sahel which caused a firewood energy crisis. Deforestation from logging and clearing land for farming, were diminishing the forest and reclamation was not occurring at a rapid enough pace. West Africa had been part of a huge logging industry, and cut down many of its own forests. Outside investors were responsible for other areas of deforestation. Today's forestry management includes logging and reforestation. The West African forestry management is taking responsible steps to restock tropical forests and restore biodiversity.
Africans do not have a word for "religion", but their beliefs and concept of a creator do exist and are closely tied to nature and ancestors, says Exploring Africa. Trees feature prominently in their worship. This is called animism and the Africans believe that spirits reside in the trees. Planting trees is an important symbol of life changes. Fruiting trees are planted to honor young women and a new tree is planted for a baby. Rituals are conducted in "sacred groves" filled with trees that have medicinal properties and that symbolize protection. Ceremonial clothing and items are made from forest resources that have spiritual meaning.
Historically, farmers cleared land to plant taro and yams or other popular crops. Today in West Africa, trees have become an important cash crop and farmers are at the forefront of planting and increasing diversity. The farming of eucalyptus is an excellent example. When farmers saw how fast the seedlings grew and calculated the economic potential, they began to grow the trees. They allowed other bushes and trees to grow as well, and gradually reforestation began to take place. Farmers also realize that trees are important to soil fertility, especially nitrogen renewal and controlling erosion. The Innovation Report has an interesting article on Acacia as an example of a nitrogen fixer that improves soil quality.
Animals and Humans
West Africa's trees have provided health solutions for indigenous people and are part of modern scientific discovery. The baobob tree is used in medicines extracted from its sap and from dried leaves. The locust tree produces large pods that are eaten and delicious fruit that is enjoyed by humans and animals, in particular the straw-colored flying fox. Neem trees are used in modern culture for the medicinal and pesticide properties of its oil.
The moringa tree is being grown for its edible seeds and pods and is also used for animal fodder, according to the General Board of Global Minestries. They call it the Miracle Tree because it is filled with so many vitamins and minerals.It has four times the vitamin A found in carrots and has been said to prevent blindness. The rich variety of West African trees offers numerous medicinal and edible benefits to all species.