Forestry and rural development are on the cusp of major changes in West Africa with Forest Law Enforcement and Trade (FLEGT) measures already affecting the international timber trade, with knock-on effects for wider patterns of forest exploitation. New opportunities for carbon conservation and bio-energy and new streams of carbon finance may greatly enhance the value of land, with significant impacts on the natural landscape and the place of forests within it. At the same time, the drivers of deforestation and degradation, many of which lie outside the forest sector, are intensifying in their effects, under the hydra-headed pressures of population growth, urbanisation, unemployment and political conflicts as well as consequent anthropogenic activities in and around the forests in the West African sub-region.
In the majority of countries with considerable potential for REDD, illegal activities (extraction of timber and NTFPs) have been significant drivers of deforestation. These call for careful examination. Although there are forest policies in virtually all countries in the sub-region, their implementation is too weak to address contemporary challenges in the forestry sector. Also, the extent to which policies and laws are implemented, the level of understanding of the issues surrounding forest law compliance, the use of emerging and appropriate technologies, and the participation of local communities in monitoring forest law compliance vary among countries in the sub-region; comparing and the sharing of knowledge and experiences, therefore, is of great importance. On the other hand, there are excessive restrictions on legal access of local communities to forest resources. Such restrictions have promoted and encouraged the surreptitious and illegal extraction of forest resources and the encroachment on forest lands in much of the West African sub-region. Illegal logging and trade, both on a large scale, are negatively affecting the profitability and competitiveness of the forest industry, in addition to the predicted impact on global warming.
Timber trade in the West African sub-region is influenced by local, regional and overseas demands, with Europe being an important market for the major producing countries in the region, though increasingly trade among the countries is also becoming manifest. Much of the demands in the local and national markets are now being satisfied with cheap rough-sawn and low-grade timber used in construction and joinery. Trade in timber and non-timber products in the sub-region is characterised by limited availability of statistics and a high volume of trade based on unrecorded or illegal forest product movements. Foreign markets and other important destinations for timber exports from West Africa are Europe, USA, China and India, with buyers from the latter two nations becoming increasingly active in the sub-region. While the European countries and USA are supporting initiatives to eradicate illegal logging, limited concern is being shown by either Indian or Chinese buyers, who are allegedly complicit in some of the illegal trade. Failure to curtail such activity will undermine efforts being made under the FLEGT and other initiatives.
Comparative analysis of the export and customs procedures throughout West Africa shows a strong similarity among systems and the roles of the government forestry and customs authorities. The former is responsible for verification of exports and contract conformity and issuing of certificates of origin, and the latter for final inspection against export and loading statements. However, in many West African countries, implementation demonstrates weaknesses and widespread opportunity to circumvent requirements. The trends show booming local demand for low-grade and low-cost timber and plywood, due mainly to increased demands for housing arising from relatively significant growths in the economies of the sub-region. Not surprisingly, in view of the informal nature of this trade, it has not translated into significant increases in GDP per capita.
 The informal sector is important in wood processing across the sub-region, supplying significant quantities of sawn-wood, furniture and joinery to urban, peri-urban and rural markets. Together, these markets are much larger in volume than the exports leaving the formal sector. Generally, with low rates of conversion, the informal sector is a bigger consumer of wood fibre than the formal sector. However, there is potential for broadening opportunities for improved efficiency across the sector. In Ghana, for example, this has contributed significantly to the economy and sometimes adds real value, whereas the formal sector detracts from value. There is thus need for the encouragement of Small and Medium Forest Enterprises (SMFEs) to overcome financial distress and improve efficiency to enable them contribute significantly to employment, poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods.
Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) are of considerable significance in the economies of the sub-region, and underpin the livelihoods and coping strategies of the poor. However, their use and management is frequently constrained by forestry laws developed to promote conservation and sustainable management of timber species, but inappropriate for the rational management of the resources in question. This underscores the need to move from the old sustained timber yield view of forest management towards a multiple-use approach.
Forest trade and value chain analyses in West Africa should ordinarily be simple; however, such analyses present a complex scenario. The complexity arises from administrative processes to the technical aspects of the trade. Obsolete industry equipment as well as inadequate and unreliable data also makes its application a daunting task. Forest governance remains a huge challenge in most West African countries. Policy and market failures underpin the poor forest governance in the sub-region and are evident in badly functioning and distorted markets with poor and perverse incentives to manage and conserve the resource. The impacts of the scenarios on climate change are far-reaching and need to be frontally addressed. Capacity building and strengthening, commitment to international processes and ordinances are keys to addressing observed institutional and policy weaknesses in the sector.