Forestry on Santo Antão, Cape Verde Islands.


After a decade of technical aid to the Upper Eastern Catchment area of the island of Santo Antão, the most westerly and second largest island of the archipelago of the Republic of Cape Verde, the Dutch government has decided to leave the exploitation and management in the hands of the Forest Service of Cape Verde and to continue with financial help only.

This short article wishes to elaborate on the impact of what has been done during the period of Dutch-Cape Verdian collaboration in the field of forestry and related rural activities on the «Planalto Leste» highlands.


Background information

The island Santo Antão is of relative young volcanic origin, built up out of mainly pyroclastic and basaltic material, and located east of the mid-Atlantic ridge, 500 nautical miles West of Cape Vert, Senegal. It consists of at least three huge extinct volcanoes, more or less welded together into a rectangular island of 20 by 40 km with an altitude of 1,900 m.a.s.l. (see figure 1).

Consolidated volcanic ashes in the form of tuffs, lapillis, bombs with ash, crossed by fissures filled with basalt lay on top of acid volcanic rock. This highly erodible material resulted into an impressive denudational1) landscape with very steep mountains, with high cliffs and deep valleys and gorges. Natural dynamics have always been high due to the strong northwestern trade winds and high solar radiation. No evidence can be given of a formerly existence of natural forests, but certainly a dense shrub vegetation existed on the slopes and high plains of the island, while in the less exposed gorges and valleys woodlots existed of native fig trees and tamarisks.

Since the discovery of the Cape Verde Islands by the Portuguese in midst fifteenth century it took at least a century before settlers came to Santo Antão, but almost certainly they populated the island with goats, asses and game birds, as they did with the others islands of the archipelago. The goats above all must have caused immense damage to the natural vegetation, setting in motion an accelerated erosion of the topsoil on the very steep hill sides. Later, as a result of the explosive growth of the population in the twentieth century, the impact of rainfed agriculture on the slopes was equally damaging.

In the early 1950's the Portuguese acknowledged the problems caused by tilling and overgrazing of the unstable volcanic soils and started with a plan to protect the northeastern upper catchments against erosion. The main afforestation activities on the higher altitudes started in 1954 (see table 2). Many tree species were tested, many from European subtropical origin as well as from the Portuguese colonies, Brazil and Australia.

In the fifties vast areas were planted, but the trees died off during the drought in the sixties, while also a lot of stands were cut during the late seventies, when there was no control by the government after the independence in 1975.

Due to the site factors, a number of forest types can nowadays be distin­guished: high, closed cover Coniferous forest; closed medium-high Acacia forest and open low Acacia forest. The first two exist on the wetter northeastern slopes, the latter on the dry interior plains. According to the type of forest, three forest-management-units were devised, with the characteristics as shown in table 1 (see also figure 2 and 3).

The actual situation is the result of natural selection of the planted -exotics, i.e. their quality to survive the sometimes prolonged droughts and capability to regenerate naturally, and the extent of protection against overgrazing and the rate of replanting. Succession towards the actual situation in vegetation

table 1

Table 1. Forest types, coherent management and climatic zones.

composition is mainly the result of a favourable micro-climate created by the forest-stands itself. One can simply say that forests which were able to maintain a closed canopy were able to make more efficient use of the precipitation and fog or mist.

Impact on the water balance

Although the forests were planted to improve protection of the topsoil and diminish surface run-off, the real impact on the total water balance is not known. In regions with an already low total amount of precipitation the quantity of water used by the vegetation cover can take so much that not much is left for sub-soil storage, to be slowly released by springs. Afforestation in countries with a semi-arid climate has demonstrated to diminish the total of water available for agriculture. In Israel e.g. hill top forest were changed into grass land, thus saving much more water for cultivation of crops in the valleys.

Although no proof can be given, the fact remains that a lot of springs dried out and formerly permanent streams nowadays only have flashfloods after heavy rainfall in the forest areas of Pico da Cruz and Pêro Dias. This of course can be the result of the overall diminishing annual rainfall in West Africa, but the influence of the forest vegetation instead of the former extensive grasslands and tuber crops is at the least suspect. Apart from this water balance problem, the protection of the top soil is of course greatly improved, which can be proven by the almost lack of surface run-off during the rainy season.

table 2

Table 2. Superficies in hectares of afforested areas per year and forest area, today still under forest cover.

Planalto Leste

Social Impact

The population on Planalto Leste has been living permanently in this area since the beginning of the project. Traditionally only during the rainy season people lived there to cultivate crops of potato, sweet potato, beans and maize on the slopes, with deep open top-soil, and the flat lands of Lagoa. On the rangelands they herded their flocks of goats and some cattle in a season migratory system, like the system existing in the European mountain areas. The promise of year-round work in the labour gangs, however, made permanent settlement worthwhile, especially because the project helped with the building of watertanks, houses, schools, stores and corrals. After the construction of permanent accessible roads little cement-block houses appeared alongside them. Most of the inhabitants came from denser populated areas, where arable land was scarce. The project became their main source of income, the keeping of goats for milk and cheese production their secondary source. Mostly they have a small lot were they grow maize and beans, and the wealthier have lots suitable for the cultivation of tubers. Any cultivation though is highly risky. The people speculate on the weather and invest as much as 4 to 5 monthly incomes in buying seed, tilling, planting and weeding. If they can harvest they can earn up to 200% of their investment, if they can't, they loose almost everything. Bank loans are not possible, therefore they have to borrow form private persons (mostly shopkeepers or landowners) and pay up to 90% interest. They can avoid this though by borrowing from family members working overseas or from the project if they are staff-members.

It can be concluded that the presence of the project did have a beneficial impact in the short term, but in the long term did actually worsen the situation by creating an infrastructure based on totally artificial conditions. Most labour gang works have stopped because they were engaged in repair jobs and infrastructural works, which implied that no more cash could be generated, thus cutting transportation of food and water. Also the permanent presence of people created an unhealthy situation in terms of hygiene, pressure on the surrounding vegetation caused by man's need for fuel and food for their beasts, and the absence of adequate schools for children who weren't able to walk the large distances to older settlements and therefore stayed home illegally without getting any education.

Consequently, during the last phase of the project, more emphasis has been given to a more permanent solution, concerning landuse and the related position of the resident population. It has been acknowledged that the agricultural sector could only give work to a very limited number of families.

Also in concordance with the proposed landuse of the Planalto Leste area, more importance was given to protection and conservation, thus restricting the impact of man and cattle to the more favourable sites.

As still most of the workers come from outside the Planalto Leste area, no major changes can be expected in resettling families. Just future expectations of a lot of people have to be adjusted. People already living in the Planalto Leste area can almost all be involved in the future maintenance activities of the forestry service.

Impact on women

As everywhere in rural communities with a lot of emigration problems of the male population, the women often play a vary important role in the household economy. Their social status might ignored outside the family by the male dominant society, in which an almost matriarchal social system exists and major decisions concerning household economy, welfare and upbringing are made by the mother or grandmother. In most cases a woman is head of the family, with the father working elsewhere or having cut the ties with the mother of his children. In some families the grandmother is the most important person who takes care of the children of her daughter or son who is working abroad or on other islands.

Cash money generating on Planalto Leste is done by working in the labour gangs, where, according to the law, 2 persons per family may sign up. This will give them a daily salary of about 300 Escudos2) per day per family. Since a year the salaries of male and female are equal. Women are not considered to have specialized work in labour gangs, but are contracted to distribute water or carry material like building stones, sand, cement, fuelwood and poles. They do very heavy work on the steep slopes, but the men say they are accustomed to it because they always carry water.

Apart from this kind of work the family raises goats and chickens and sell the milk and eggs. If overproduction of milk occurs they make cheese. Most of the people living here were former day-labourers for land owners and naturally they continue this tradition, maintaining serf-landlord-like godfatherly relations, tilling the soil for sometimes long gone proprietors, who pay them partly in cash, partly in kind.

Getting water

Women are contracted to carry material like building stones.
Photo: Matthijs de Vreede

What has been the impact of the project? Most of all the replacement of employer, since the drought diminished work for landowners in the agricultural sector, secondly more value to work done by females by ultimately paying them the same salary as males. In some special cases the project gave a bonus in kind of 10% of the carried wood to women, in order to promote transportation of fuel wood in periods of shortage of carriers in relation to cutters. In that way the project got rid of the growing stock of cut timber and at the same time tried to promote an understanding of business and sense of self-esteem.

The problem of energy

For domestic purposes, traditionally the population of Santo Antão used vegetative material to cook their food or heat their houses. They always used what grew in the immediate vicinity of their homes and it seldom was wood. Mostly they used the dried balms of the sugarcane, remnants of maize and sub-woody herbs and shrubs, depending on the place they were living. Unfor­tunately in the case of the latter they did not use proper cutting tools, but just uprooted the whole plant, thus destroying the structure of the topsoil and inhibiting the regrowth of perennial plants.

The project has always been doing its best to teach the population how to cut grass with sickles or scythes (provided by the project) and branches with knives or pruning saws. These tools arc relatively costly though and therefore a forest guard was made responsible for lending out proper tools to the people in a certain district.

However, the issue of fuelwood has been complicated by more modern devises as gas stoves. Camping gas is provided by a.o. Shell for very reasonable prices (subsidized) and the cooking equipment can be bought cheaply, thus providing a very good alternative for families who have access to cash.

The Forest Service is producing fuel wood and selling it to the population. The fuel wood is sold in two quality classes: primary class, with diameters above 10 cm for 5 Escudos per kg and secondary class with diameter from 2 - 10 cm for 3,5 Escudos per kg. Branches with a smaller diameter, as well as cones are free to be gathered by the local population.

The fuelwood is sold mainly in three central places within the forest, directly to the population. As transportation is a big problem, and therefore costly, in practise the poorer rural population outside the forest area can't afford to buy fuelwood, and is also unable to walk great distances to the forest in order to gather free fuelwood. As the Forest Service is obliged by law to pay 15% of the produce to the original landowners on which lands the forests grow, and because transportation is difficult and very expensive, up to now no solution of this marketing problem has been found. The project, however, has been stimulating more and more the homestead planting of multiple-use trees and for that purpose seedlings are freely distributed among the population.

For the people in the settlement who have access to shops and are more involved in a cash economy, gas is the most used commodity. It has been calculated that gas is three times cheaper than fuelwood and of course a lot cleaner. One of the most common diseases in rural areas is chronic bronchitis, probably caused by excessive and prolonged exposure to smoke from kitchen fires. Distribution is very well organized and almost all shops have in stock 2,5 kg gas tanks. Gas costs about 55 Esc/kg, therefore it is within the budget range of most families. Fuelwood, however, is considered a commodity with an added value; i.e. for the national dish «Cachupa» the people prefer wood as fuel because of the scent. Also bakeries and restaurants highly value the local Acacia's as source of fuel and they are the main buyers of the wood sold in the forests.

Ecological impact

As now has been understood by the Cape Verde Government, the landscape of most of the Island is very vulnerable to erosion. In the latest Forest Law, published on the 14th of September 1989, great emphasis is given to the protection of the environment. Official status has been given to the National Forest Service (NFS) and a Forestry Fund has been established, in which all benefits of the forests have to be deposited. The Fund can then locally be used for maintenance and expansion of the forest area. This is a big improvement on the former situation when almost all profits were diverted to almost anything but reforestation and afforestation. Within the middle and long term the NFS has to make a strategic and management plan, according to the land use classification maps, which proclaims terrains susceptible to erosion National Forest Reserves. Owners of such terrains are invited to lease their land to the NFS and asked to respond within a fixed time. If they do not reply the terrain will be considered leased to the NFS.

The Planalto Leste project anticipated this law long beforehand and helped to write an appendix to the then existing forest law: the «Portaria», or Ministerial decision no 86 of 1985. In the «Portaria» a detailed description of the land use of Planalto Leste and the time-planning for the conversion of the actual land use was given.

During the last three years a significant modification of land protection has been proposed and implemented on an experimental scale. Formerly the most common practise was to construct parallel terraces or crescent shaped planting holes on the slopes, unrecorded the depth of the top soil and condition of the vegetation. This often resulted in such a disturbance of the soil structure that the negative effects more than undid the positive. Also, in the real arid parts of Planalto Leste, the mortality of planted seedlings is extremely high (60-90%) and planting very costly because of absence of roads in the very rugged terrain.

As no proof could be given of an improvement of the vegetation cover3)  as result of the planting of exotics and it was suspected that it was rather the presence of forest-guards that had an overall beneficial effect on the recovery of the vegetation, it was proposed to minimize the construction of terraces and planting of exotics in favour of just protecting the natural vegetation by keeping the goats and people away.

The future of Planalto Leste

Why has the Dutch government decided to stop technical aid? Mainly because it is recognized that at present the Cape Verde Staff has grown large enough to man the various regional offices. They are slowly coming back from overseas university courses with at least a Bachelor degree. Also the efforts by the project to familiarize the population with the principles of soil conservation and sustainable agricultural production are bearing fruits and one can say that almost everybody on Planalto Leste knows how to harvest grasses, how to cut wood, how to plant seedlings, how to dig terraces and crescent shaped planting holes. Also one knows the role of trees and other perennial plants in the protection of the top soil against water and wind erosion. Problems still exist in the field of land tenure, absentee landowners, law enforcement etc., issues to be solved by the Cape Verde Government rather than by expatriate technicians.

Financial aid will continue during at least the next 5 years, but will be gradually diminished in order to stimulate the process of privatization of all maintenance and exploitation activities. Above all it is the local population, living within the forest periphery which is to reap the fruits from the land. With the proper control by the NFS they should be able as a community to maintain and even expand the forests on Planalto Leste, and earn a modest living by doing so.


Hiemstra, F. (1986). Vegetation and range-land of Planalto Leste area (Santo Antão, Rep. de Cabo Verde). Cour. Forsch. Inst. Senckenberg, Vol. 81, pages 165-177. Frankfurt a/M. BRD.