Effort to save forests should target 15 countries

Posted: 5 September 2001

A unique satellite-based survey of the planet's remaining closed forests, which include virgin, old growth and naturally-regenerated woodlands, has found that over 80 per cent are located in just 15 countries.

These are Russia, Canada, Brazil, the United States of America, Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, India, Australia and Papua New Guinea. Russia, Canada and Brazil alone contain about 49 per cent of the remaining closed forests.

Sabinyo volcano, Virunga National Park, D R Congo. Credit: WWF-Canon/Martin Harvey

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), one of the organisations behind the report, believes that targeting scarce conservation funds on these 15 key countries may pay dividends in terms of environmental results.

Importantly, the survey also says that the pressure from people and population growth on most of these remaining closed forests, such as those in Bolivia and Peru, is low. Others, such as the remaining closed forests in India and China, are under more pressure from human activity and may require a bigger effort to conserve and protect, the report concludes.

But overall an estimated 88 per cent of these vital forests are sparsely populated, which give well-focused and well-funded conservation efforts a real chance of success.

Target areas

The findings have come from scientists with UNEP working with other researchers from the US Geological Survey, NASA, the US space agency, and other agencies.

Commenting on the report, Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, said: "Short of a miraculous transformation in the attitude of people and governments, the Earth's remaining closed-canopy forests and their associated biodiversity are destined to disappear in the coming decades.

"Knowing it is unlikely that all forests can be protected, it would be better to focus conservation priorities on those target areas that have the best prospects for continued existence. I believe this new study provides this new focus. I urge governments, communities and international organizations to act on our findings and recommendations," he added.

The report, which the authors claim is the most comprehensive and reliable assessment ever made of global forest cover, has used satellite-based information to identify the extent and distribution of the World's Remaining Closed Forests (WRCF). These are defined as forests with a canopy closure of more than 40 per cent.

Population pressure

Such a level of canopy closure is considered vital if the forest is to be considered healthy and able to perform all its known environmental and ecological functions effectively. Such forests are also home to some of the world's rarest and most unique species including the elusive cloud leopard of Russia and the lion-tailed macaque of the Western Ghats in India.

Population pressures, one of the key threats to the world's remaining forests, vary between the countries. But overall 88 per cent of the world's remaining closed forests in these key 15 countries have low if non-existent population densities.

In India, 43 per cent of closed forests have high population densities. In China 36 per cent are facing high population densities whereas almost all closed forest areas in Peru and Bolivia are free from high population pressure.

Other countries free from high population pressures and with significant closed forests include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where closed forest accounts for nearly half the land area, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Russia and Canada.

Threatened dry forest, Mexico. Credit: WWF

The report, An Assessment of the Status of the World's Remaining Closed Forests, argues that it is vital to act now to protect these last important forests: "The low population densities in and around the majority of the WRCF areas offer an excellent opportunity for conservation, if appropriate steps are taken now by the national governments and the international community."

The report has also found that 53 countries have more than 30 per cent of their land cover under closed forests. Some of those, especially ones with low population densities, could also eventually be the focus of vigorous conservation efforts after the forests of the first 15 countries have been made secure.

Action plans

The report calls on governments in the key 15 countries concerned to draft action plans detailing how they propose to conserve their remaining closed forests. The level of protected areas also need to be sharply increased backed by tougher policing of such sites alongside crackdowns on smuggling and poaching of trees and wildlife.

The report also calls for road and dam construction to be subject to "rigorous scrutiny" and the conversion of forest land to be allowed only after exhausting other alternatives.

Wealthy countries should invest in the protection of the last remaining closed forests situated in poorer countries. The investment required is likely to be modest. Debt-for-Nature Swaps, in which developing country debts are reduced by industrialized countries in return for closed forest protection, should be vigorously encouraged, the report says.

UNEP is also soon to publish a Strategy on Global Forest Assessment and Monitoring which will outline other actions the organization will be taking in support of forest conservation. It hopes to create a permanent forest monitoring system.

The strategy is also likely to lead to a new assessment of the impacts of population growth, economic expansion and climate change on forests, and by implication, human beings.

To download the full report, go to: UNEP/GRID.
To see a poster/map of The World's Forests, click here.