Tropical forests still falling fast

Posted: 12 October 2001

Tropical countries are losing their forests at a very high rate, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in a new issue of the State of the World's Forests 2001.

"During the 1990s, the loss of natural forests was 16.1 million hectares per year, of which 15.2 million occurred in the tropics," the FAO said in its biannual report. One hectare equals roughly 2.5 acres. Deforestation was highest in Africa and South America. "The countries with the highest net loss of forest area between 1990 and 2000 were Argentina, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Myanmar, Mexico, Nigeria, the Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe," the FAO reported. The findings are based on the FAO's Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000.

Of the 15.2 million hectares of natural forest lost annually in the tropics, 14.2 million were converted to other land uses and one million were converted to forest plantations.

Outside tropical countries, 0.9 million hectares of natural forest were lost per year, of which slightly more than half were converted to forest plantations and the rest were converted to other land uses.

Natural forest expansion was estimated at 3.6 million hectares annually in the past decade, of which 2.6 million hectares were in non-tropical countries and one million hectares in the tropics.

Those with the highest net gain of forest area during this period are China, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and the United States.

Plantation push

Plantations contributed to the gain in forest area, with 1.9 million hectares of new plantations per year in tropical countries and 1.2 million hectares in non-tropical areas. Future increases in demand for wood are predicted to be met largely by forest plantations, the FAO predicts.

The concept of sustainable forest management continues to gain momentum around the world, FAO noted. "As of 2000, 149 countries were involved in international initiatives to develop and implement criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management, although the degree of implementation varies considerably. Furthermore, interest in forest certification increased; the total global area of certified forests grew to 80 million hectares by the end of 2000."

But only two per cent of the world's total forest area is under sustainable management. "Most certified forests are located in a limited number of temperate countries, and not in tropical countries where unsustainable timber harvesting practices are a contributing factor to forest degradation," the FAO says.

An estimated 12 per cent of the world's forests are under protected area status.

Forest crime

Efforts to improve forest management will only be successful if forest crime and corruption can be reduced, the report stressed. Illegal forest practices include - the approval of illegal contracts with private enterprises by public servants, harvesting of protected trees by commercial corporations, smuggling of forest products across borders, and processing forest raw materials without a license.

The key for combating such illegal activities are improved monitoring systems, simpler laws and their strict enforcement, FAO says.

Another problem in the 1990s were periods of severe drought, setting the stage for devastating wildfires to occur in practically every corner of the world, the FAO reports. For example, during the 2000 fire season an estimated 200 million hectares south of the equator in Africa burned.

Policy-makers are beginning to realize that continued emphasis only on emergency response will not prevent large and damaging fires in the future. Emergency preparedness and response programmes must be coupled with better land use policies and practices - including community involvement. A bushmeat crisis has evolved in equatorial Africa, the FAO report confirms. The forests of tropical Africa are rich in primate species, which are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation because they breed slowly and often have small populations.

"About 15 primate species are believed to be threatened by the bushmeat trade. The number of chimpanzees in Africa is believed to have declined by 85 percent during the 20th century," the FAO says.


The State of the World's Forests 2001Bush meat - a disappearing abundanceBushmeat crisis

Source: Environment News Service, 8th October 2001.