Human context

Demography and development

In 2016 the ten Central African countries had a combined population of about 150 million, including 20-30 million living in the forests or nearby. The annual population growth rate ranges from 1.98% in CAR to 3.29% in Burundi. The lowest rate is close to 2% (CAR) and the highest rate is over 3% (DRC, Chad, Burundi). According to the Population Reference Bureau, the overall population forecast for the sub-region for 2050 is 384 million.

Country Country area (km2) (a) Population (millions) (b) Average density (hab/km2) Increase (%) (b) Population 2050 (millions) (c) Urbanization (%(c)) Pop / ha cultivated permanent (c)
Year 2015 2015 2015 2015 mid-2016 mid-2016 mid-2016
Burundi 25 680 11,179 435,32 3,29 30,4 12 9,25
Cameroon 472 710 23,344 49,38 2,48 51,9 54 3,93
Gabon 257 670 1,725 6,69 2,20 3,5 87 5,43
Equatorial Guinea 28 050 0,845 30,12 2,90 2,0 40 7,25
CAR 622 980 4,900 7,87 1,98 9,7 40 2,78
DRC 2 267 050 77,267 34,08 3,14 213,8 42 11,24
Republic of Congo 341 500 4,620 13,53 2,53 10,2 65 8,82
Rwanda 24 670 11,609 470,57 2,34 23,6 29 10,06
São Tomé and Principe 960 0,190 197,92 2,12 0,3 67 22,79
Chad 1 259 200 14,037 11,15 3,26 38,5 22 2,96
Region 5 300 470 149,718 28,25 2,93 383,9 40

Table 1: Demographic parameters


  • a) Food and Agriculture Organization, 2015.
  • b) Banque Mondiale, Catalogue de données, 2015 : (1) United Nations Population Division. World Population Prospects, (2) Rapports de recensement et autres publications statistiques nationales, (3) United Nations Statistical Division. Population and Vital Statistics Report et (4) U.S. Census Bureau: Base de données internationale.
  • c) Population Reference Bureau - 2016 World Population Data Sheet.

Per capita GDP varies between 584 US$ (CAR) and 32,685 US$ (Equatorial Guinea). It is under 1000 US$ in Burundi, DRC and CAR, and above 10,000 US$ in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. This shows the great difference between countries of the sub-region, a difference based, inter alia, on the presence or absence of mining and petroleum resources. The literacy rate also differs widely from one country to the next, usually with a wide difference between men and women, although that gap is gradually shrinking.

Country Life expectancy M/W(d) Primary educ. M/W (e) Secondary educ. M/W (e) Illiterate >15 ans (%) (e) PIB/hab (US$) (d) HDI and ranking (d)
year 2014 variable variable 2015 2013 2014
Burundi 54,8/58,7 127/128 (2014) 41/35 (2014) 12/17 747 0,400 (184)
Cameroon 54,4/56,7 120/107 (2014) 61/52 (2014) 19/31 2 739 0,512 (153)
Gabon 63,8/65 144/140 (2011) 53 (moy. 2002) 15/19 18 646 0,684 (110)
Equatorial Guinea 56,3/59 85/84 (2012) 32/23 (2005) 3/7 32 685 0,587 (138)
CAR 48,8/52,6 107/80 (2012) 23/12 (2012) 49/76 584 0,350 (187)
DRC 57,2/60,1 112/102 (2014) 54/33 (2014) 11/34 783 0,433 (176)
Republic of Congo 60,8/63,9 107/115 (2012) 58/51 (2012) 14/27 5 680 0,591 (136)
Rwanda 61,1/67 132/135 (2014) 37/41 (2014) 25/32 1 426 0,483 (163)
São Tomé and Principe 64,4/68,4 116/111 (2015) 81/89 (2015) 4/12 2 876 0,555 (143)
Chad 50,5/52,7 115/88 (2013) 31/14 (2012) 52/68 2 022 0,392 (185)

Table 2: Health and education parameters

  • d) Programme des Nations-Unies pour le Développement – 2015 (
  • e) UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Data centre (

The human development index or HDI (Table 2), which includes the indexes for health, life expectancy, education and standard of living, ranks four countries in the sub-region at the medium level (HDI between 0.700 and 0.550) and six countries at the low human development level (HDI below 0.550). Out of the 188 countries evaluated, the countries of Central Africa rank between 110th place (Gabon) and 187th place (CAR). All the countries in the sub-region have made progress in the last three years, in spite of some fluctuations. Rwanda is the country with the biggest HDI increase (up 0.184 points).

Country HDI 1980 HDI 1990 HDI 2000 HDI 2010 HDI 2014 (ranking)
Burundi 0,230 0,295 0,301 0,390 0,400 (184)
Cameroon 0,405 0,443 0,437 0,486 0,512 (153)
Gabon 0,548 0,620 0,632 0,663 0,684 (110)
Equatorial Guinea 0,484 [1985] 0,526 0,591 0,587 (138)
CAR 0,302 0,314 0,310 0,362 0,350 (187)
DRC 0,346 0,355 0,329 0,408 0,433 (176)
Republic of Congo 0,527 0,534 0,489 0,554 0,591 (136)
Rwanda 0,299 0,244 0,333 0,453 0,483 (163)
São Tomé and Principe 0,452 0,455 0,491 0,544 0,555 (143)
Chad 0,342 [1985] 0,332 0,371 0,392 (185)

Table 3: Evolution of the HDI (1980-2014)

  • Programme des Nations-Unies pour le Développement – 2015 (

Population density

Average population density fluctuates enormously from country to country, with values ranging from 6.69 people/km2 in Gabon to 470.57 people/km2 in Rwanda. Hence the number of people per hectare of permanent farmland also varies greatly: 2.78 in CAR, 22.79 in São Tomé and Principe. These figures are relatively low compared to other parts of the world but are between two and four times higher than a decade ago.

Population density also varies greatly from one region to another within each country. In the forest zone, the highest population densities are observed in the West Cameroon mountains and the Albertine Highlands. The least inhabited regions are in Gabon and a large part of the Republic of Congo, where population density is below 0.1 per km2 across vast areas.

These low population figures for certain parts of the forestlands are aggravated by high urbanisation rates, especially in Cameroon, Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Principe and Gabon. In Gabon 87% of the population lives in towns. At the other end of the spectrum, Chad, Rwanda and Burundi have the lowest urbanisation rates in the region.

Breakdown of the rural populations

In forested Central African the rural populations account for 13 to 60% of the total national population. The rural dwellers are often concentrated along the roads or waterways. In Gabon and Republic of Congo (ex-French Equatorial Africa), these settlement patterns were introduced by the French colonial administration as of 1930 and were maintained by the newly independent States until the 1970s. In DRC this pattern is less pronounced, and occurred more spontaneously as rural populations were attracted to areas beside roads and waterways. However, as the security situation worsened, many people withdrew into the forests again to escape the armed gangs that travel on these roads.

This concentration of the rural populations along the transportation routes means that their impact on the forests in terms of deforestation and degradation is concentrated in strips 5 to 20 km wide along these routes, as can be clearly seen from satellite photos. On the other hand, this population concentration somewhat reduces pressure on forestlands further away. This is the case in Gabon. In DRC, and to a lesser extent in Cameroon, hunters set up temporary camps a long way from their villages.

In Rwanda and Burundi, the rural populations are all widely scattered. In Rwanda, however, before 1960 there were very localised attempts to group the population together and later on, as of 1994, attempts were made on a much larger scale in areas where people coming back to their home country were settled, particularly in the Mutara region.

Impact of urban populations

Heavy urbanisation has seriously reduced rural population density and created a certain number of large cities in or near the forest zone. Some of these cities are within forest areas, others not.

Their impact on the forest ecosystem is very variable and depends first of all on the cultural and socio-economic circumstances. Large conurbations like Douala, Yaoundé, Libreville, Pointe Noire, Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Mbuji-Mayi, Tshikapa, Kisangani and Bukavu consume large quantities of forest products.

Fuelwood consumption in these large cities, usually as charcoal, creates heavy pressure and causes accelerated, far-reaching deforestation. This is especially true around Kinshasa, Mbuji-Mayi and Brazzaville for instance. The effect is more insidious in Cameroon, where fuelwood consumption affects the northern fringes of the forest; large quantities of charcoal are exported from there to neighbouring Nigeria and Chad via the informal market, unplanned and uncontrolled.

Bushmeat sales are also very important. Just like charcoal, they depend largely on transport possibilities. The railroads play an important role in Cameroon and Gabon; road transport is important in Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo and CAR, while waterways are important in Republic of Congo, and even more so in DRC, where large quantities of meat are also transported on bicycles from the middle of the country to the large cities south of the forest areas (EdF 2006).

The cities in Northern Cameroon, Rwanda and Burundi have little impact on the forest ecosystems.

But large cities cause pollution that is very detrimental to natural ecosystems. The cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa, for instance, seriously impact the Congo River’s aquatic ecosystem, and waste from Congo and DRC even lands on the beaches of Gabon (Vande weghe 2007). Coastal cities like Douala, Libreville and Pointe Noire also damage the coastal and estuarine ecosystems.

History of population settlement

In general, the human population of Central Africa dates back to well before the arrival of the modern man, Homo sapiens. The oldest evidence of human presence in the forest lands comes from Gabon, where flaked stone tools dating back 400,000 years have been found in the Middle Ogooué Valley (Clist 1995; Oslisly 2001, 1998). In Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, remains of the Middle Palaeolithic period (Sangoën and Lupembien) have been found, dating back some 70,000 years. And in both Gabon and DRC tools have been found dating from the Upper Palaeolithic (Tshitolian and related cultures) (40,000 to 50,000 BP).

Until a few thousand years ago, communities probably lived on the banks of the main water courses and in the savanna areas, which were much more extensive during most of the past 100,000 years than they are now. The forests were extremely fragmented from 18,000 to 15,000 years ago and did not completely recover until some 12,000 years BP, reaching their maximum extent about 7000 years ago. Another retreat and fragmentation phase started in 3900 BP and peaked between 2500 and 2000 BP. The continuous nature of the Lower Guinea and the Congo region forests today is probably a historical exception.

The Pygmies

It is difficult to know exactly when the human beings started living in the great forest expanses, away from the main waterways and savanna lands, but the Pygmies seem to have been the first to do so. Genetic studies show that their adaptation to the forest environment dates back 25,000 to 20,000 years. Thereafter their population is thought to have fluctuated along with variations in the size of the forest. The eastern and western Pygmies seem to have been genetically separate since about 15,000 years ago (Cavalli-Sforza 1986, Bahuchet 1996). Population density among the Pygmies has apparently always been low. With no farming, sources of carbohydrates are scarce in the tropical forest, and this is a major limiting factor (Hladik et al. 1996). At present the Pygmies account for probably a little less than 1% of all forest-dwellers, and all the Pygmy groups have developed close relationships with the Bantu populations. Moreover, the Pygmies no longer have their own language. They speak the language of their Bantu or Oubanguian neighbours. Some groups in northeastern DRC, CAR and Cameroon have maintained their semi-nomadic way of life; others, especially in Gabon, the eastern part of DRC, Rwanda and Burundi are more or less integrated into the Bantu societies. Gene flows between the Bantus and Pygmies are relatively significant in some areas where Pygmy women are married to Bantu men. Some Pygmy groups have disappeared as the result of assimilation.

The Bantus

Most present-day forest dwellers belong to the Bantu group, which is composed of two separate sub-groups. But all of them originated in the Nigeria-Cameroon border region and began their migration some 5000 years ago (Vansina 1990).

The western Bantus headed south and crossed the Sanaga 4000 years ago. A little more than 3600 years ago they showed up on the coast of Gabon. Around 3000 BP they reached the Congo River, and around 2500 years ago they reached the heart of the Congo Cuvette. They seem to have colonised the last parts of the forest a little over 1000 years ago. The first waves of people had a Neolithic culture; metal users did not appear until 2500 BP and did not reach Bioko Island; when the Portuguese landed there in the late 15th century they found the population using only stone tools.

During their migrations, the Bantus encountered the Pygmies and developed a relationship based on complementarity. According to many oral traditions, the Pygmies served as “guides” for the Bantus, and many Bantu traditions apparently have Pygmy origins. The Bantus also encountered populations that descended from the Lupembans. According to Vansina (1990)), these populations were pushed back and finally eliminated through competition. Recent genetic studies in Gabon, however, show that some present-day populations absorbed the pre-Bantus (Hombert 2007).

The eastern Bantus headed to East Africa. When they settled in the Great Lakes region 2500 years ago they were already using metal technology, as there are no traces of the Neolithic culture in Rwanda, Burundi or eastern DRC. They then headed towards southern Africa and the southern fringe of the forest (Vansina 1990).

On the eastern and southern fringes of the forest, the western and the eastern Bantus met and influenced each other. In areas around the forestlands the Bantus met with other linguistics groups. In the north they mainly encountered the Oubanguians and Central-Soudanians, whose influence can be found throughout the northeastern DRC. The groups encountered in the east were Nilotics and the Cushites; the languages of the Great Lakes region include significant non-Bantu elements, either Nilotic or Cushite.

These migrations enabled the Bantu people to occupy most of Central Africa and a very sizeable part of eastern and southern Africa in less than 5000 years. Their reasons for migrating were probably many and complex, varying over time. Demography and socio-economic conditions must have played a role, but these migrations were also part of the tremendous upheavals generated by the desertification of the Sahara, which started 5000 years ago and finally affected, directly or indirectly, all the people of sub-Saharan Africa ((Lugan 1997).).

The Oubanguians

Like the Bantus, this linguistic group (originally from the Bénoué Valley) colonised a large part of Cameroon, southern Chad and CAR. A little over 2000 years ago they reached the Uélé in northeastern DRC. The Oubanguians are all savanna people but have strongly influenced the western forest Bantus.

Indigenous peoples and immigrants

Following the South American example, anthropologists, sociologists and politicians now tend to call the Pygmies “indigenous peoples” as if all the other populations were not “indigenous”. In Amazonia, where the Amerindians only account for 1% of the global population, the rest being of European, African or Asian origin, movements have arisen to protect the indigenous peoples. In Central Africa, where close to 99% of the population is of African origin, the situation is not comparable. Many of the ethnic groups, admittedly, have migrated significantly in the last few centuries but all have been in contact with the forest world for a very long time. Many have developed complementary trade relations with the Pygmies. Some have assimilated cultural elements such as songs and rites from the Pygmies, and there are, or used to be, ceremonies performed by Bantus and Pygmies together, especially in Gabon, DRC and Rwanda. Other populations have absorbed Pygmy communities inter alia by marrying Pygmy women. There are traditional clans in Rwanda that have pygmy branches. Lastly, it is an accepted fact that some Bantu populations absorbed very ancient pre-Bantu groups of hunters-gatherers. In other words, the Central African forest populations of today form a complex ensemble with multiple origins, but this complexity is hidden by the fact that practically all of them speak Bantu. If the expression “indigenous peoples” is to be used in Central Africa, it should refer to Pygmy and Bantu populations combined, as distinct from people of Asian or European origin. It is hard to justify using this term only for a population who until now have lived as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, since this may well change.

Agriculture, livestock production and the use of natural forest resources

The plains forests

Shifting slash-and-burn agriculture is practiced in most parts of the Central African forestlands, with ever-shorter fallow periods (which used to last between 10 and 20 years). Livestock production is essentially limited to goats, which are only used as a medium of exchange for weddings or other ceremonies. Most animal protein comes from hunting and fishing. This contributes to the formation of a mosaic landscape composed of ancient forests, younger forests and farming areas with crops, fallow land and villages.

During the past 20-30 years, hunting has become a highly commercial activity keyed to feeding the urban communities (Bennett & Robinson 2000). Despite accelerated urbanisation, a goodly part of the population still depends on natural resources from the forest. In most of the Central African countries, the improvement of roads and riverways, industrial logging that opens up the forestlands, and the major increase in the number of vehicles, especially the arrival of the 4x4 vehicles, are facilitating this trend, which will ultimately destroy the wildlife and, indirectly, dispossess the rural populations that depend on these resources for protein. In DRC, insecurity and turmoil have chased some populations away from the roads; agriculture has collapsed and the people have fallen back on forest resources. The situation has become extreme in the Congo Basin where hunter-poachers go into the Salonga national park to supply the diamond-rich city of Mbuji-Mayi, 350 km to the south (EdF 2006). Elsewhere, in particular in Cameroon and Gabon, urban populations hit by unemployment have also taken to commercial hunting again as a means of livelihood (Bennett & Robinson 2000).

Fishing has become the number one source of animal protein since the big game disappeared from vast areas, especially in DRC (EdF 2006). Unfortunately there are many ecological, cultural, economic and socio-political obstacles to the growth of livestock production (small or large animals), as well as habits learned from poor governance.

Non-timber forest products, forest foods and pharmaceuticals are widely used in these regions. Some of them are sold on a large scale and some are becoming scarce even at the local level e.g. Gnetum in Congo (EdF 2006).

In the high altitude forests

The highlands of the Albertine Rift and West Cameroon have a system of intensive farming with short or even zero fallow periods. The farmers use crop rotation instead, which is possible because the soils are fertile, especially the volcanic soils, and the climate is suitable. But with the farming, or alongside it, there is transhumant livestock that grazes not only on the natural grassland but also live on depleted cropland and fallow lands, preventing any kind of forest regeneration (Vandeweghe 2004).

In these regions, the forests are gradually disappearing; it is just a question of time. In Rwanda for instance, the natural forests now cover 5-6% of their original area (during the last forest climax) and deforestation started at least 2000 years ago (Van Grunderbeek & al 1981). In western Cameroon the grassfield landscape north of the Bamenda plateau is also very ancient and largely manmade.

In these regions the local people make relatively little use of the forests’ natural resources, mainly just taking some building materials and traditional medicines. Hunting is a very marginal activity. In the Nyungwe forest in Rwanda, for instance, hunting only developed significantly with the arrival of the gold panners (Vande weghe, pers. obs.). On the whole, people living in these highland regions see the forest as land waiting to be cleared. In western Cameroon, however, there are some types of traditional protection for the remaining forests (EdF 2006). Paradoxically, these remaining pockets of forest are often rather well conserved and are home to an abundance of wildlife.

Roads, waterways and railways

Throughout the Congo cuvette, waterways are still the main transport route, and the Congo River can rightly be considered the DRC’s main highway.

Since the beginning of the colonial era, the colonisers had to grapple with the problem of Central Africa’s largely landlocked position. Unlike the Amazon Basin where seagoing ships can penetrate far into the country, Central Africa is isolated because the rivers to the Atlantic Ocean have impassable waterfalls and rapids about 200-300 km inland. Since the Congo River is not navigable upstream of Brazzaville and Kinshasa, at the end of the 19th c. the Brazzaville-Pointe Noire and Léopoldville (Kinshasa)-Matadi railroads were built. The same is true for the rivers in Gabon and Cameroon, but in these countries the railroads were built much later.

The road network was developed during the 20th century, especially after World War II. Road density varies greatly and there are vast regions in Gabon, Congo and DRC that are very hard to reach. In DRC, with the decline of the economy, many roads have been severely damaged or are no longer usable.

Some parts of Central Africa can only be reached by air.

Transport routes play a fundamental role in all social and economic development. Their effects on forest areas are complex and sometimes paradoxical. They foster legitimate extractive activities such as exploitation of timber and minerals, but also illicit activities such as poaching.

Various organisations, especially the WRI, have produced maps of the road networks to identify the most remote forests, deemed the most pristine. This approach is only partly valid. On the one hand, the navigable rivers must be factored in, which is more difficult, and on the other, the impact of roads is rather variable from one country to the next, depending on the economic conditions.

Last, roads do not only have a negative impact, since they are used to transport farm produce, contribute to the development of agriculture and so reduce manmade pressure on natural forest resources. Likewise the waterways, which also attract people and tend to concentrate them in a linear pattern. In Gabon, Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, after 1930 it was the policy of the colonial powers to concentrate the population along the roads, and after independence the countries' governments followed suit. In Democratic Republic of Congo the phenomenon occurred spontaneously for the most part. Whatever the underlying reasons, amassing groups of people along the roads and waterways has the effect of fragmenting the forest while preserving more or less intact the forestlands farther than 15-20 km away. The lack of roads, however, does not protect these “isolated” forest areas from hunters. Difficult economic conditions prompt DRC hunters to venture more than 200 to 300 km from their villages. Mining villages in the Kasaï, such as Mbuji Mayi, are supplied with bushmeat brought by bicycle from the Salonga national park more than 300 km away.