Until the middle of the 20th century, The Gambia’s landscapes were extensively wooded, as part of the broad Sudanian wooded savannas that sweep across this latitude of West Africa. Today, vegetation density and diversity increases from east to west, as well as from the relatively drier north to the moister south. The Gambia’s land cover has changed dramatically. The first change is the expansion of agriculture as the savannas are cleared for farming. The second is the rapid urban sprawl of Greater Banjul and beyond.
Among The Gambia’s semi-natural landscapes, savanna — which ranges from open shrub and tree savanna to dense wooded savanna — is still the predominant class by area. However, the maps show that it is giving way to agriculture. In 1975, savanna occupied 51.3 percent of the total land area, whereas in 2013 it occupied 43.4 percent. In the eastern and southern regions of the country, the savanna land cover is also becoming more fragmented as village lands devoted to agriculture coalesce.
The Gambia’s forests offer a more mixed picture of change. Majestic gallery forests (and fringing riparian forests along humid bottomlands) once lined most of the streams and drainage ways. They often occur on deeper soils with shallow water tables. These areas are also favored for rice cultivation and other uses. As a result, gallery forests are being seriously depleted by clearing, or degraded by selective logging of large trees for high value wood. In 1975, 324 sq km of gallery forest were mapped. By 2013, only 185 sq km remained, a loss of over 42 percent. In contrast, The Gambia’s mangrove forests have been fairly stable, with a slight increase in area from 602 sq km in 1975 to 654 sq km in 2013 (see mangrove regeneration story).
With the French introduction of groundnuts as a cash crop in Senegal in the 1800s, the production of groundnuts gradually spread across the border into western The Gambia. The northern half of The Gambia was the first to embrace large-scale groundnut cultivation because of its proximity to the major groundnut producing region of Senegal. By the 1930s, this area had become The Gambia’s main agricultural region. Patches of savanna used for grazing and forest resources were still present, as seen in the 1975 map. By 2013, The Gambia’s western portion, north of the river, had become almost continuously cultivated, and the traditional system of bush fallow largely abandoned. Agricultural expansion continues in all regions. In the east, where it was once found mainly on deeper soils in valleys, rainfed cultivation has now expanded into the terraces and plateaus. At the national level, agriculture in 1975 was found on 21 percent of The Gambia’s land area. The area increased to 23.9 percent in 2000, and 28.1 percent in 2013.