Much of world's remaining intact forests at risk

Posted: 17 April 2002

From the temperate rainforests of Chile to Russia's northern taiga forests, researchers have evidence that the world's wooded lands are shrinking faster than even pessimists had thought.

A series of reports based on new maps covering nearly half of the world's forests concludes that vast areas of remaining intact or old-growth and primary forests are being degraded as the result of unsustainable development practices.

The reports, released in April 2002 by the World Resources Institute's (WRI) Global Forest Watch, cover Chile, Venezuela, Indonesia, Russia, Central Africa, and North America. They include the first detailed atlas of the forests of Russia.

"As we examined what we thought were still vast, untouched stretches of intact forests in the world, we came to the conclusion that they are fast becoming a myth," said Jonathan Lash, WRI president. "Much of the green canopy that is left is, in reality, already crisscrossed by roads, mining and logging concessions."

Take the Russian taiga, long thought of as an expanse of wilderness protected from human encroachment. The first atlas of Russia's forests indicates that it now consists of fragments of wilderness, separated by logged and otherwise degraded forest.

In North America, less than half of the region's forests and woodlands are in tracts of land at least 200 square kilometres in size. Over 90 per cent of these are found in Alaska and Canada. In the Lower 48 states, only 6 per cent of forests are relatively undisturbed in large tracts and only 17 per cent of these are strictly or moderately protected.

"Much of the threats facing the remaining intact forests boils down to bad economics, bad management, and corruption," said Dirk Bryant, founder and co-director of Global Forest Watch. "We are rapidly moving towards a world where wilderness forests are confined primarily to islands of parks and reserves, with surrounding areas managed commercially for timber and other resources. The health of the planet's forests will depend on how well we manage and protect these remaining areas."

The reports note that while many countries have taken great strides in enacting laws to protect their forests, in many places regulations are simply not enforced. In Indonesia, for example, about 70 per cent of its timber production is illegally logged. In Central Africa, Global Forest Watch found logging concessions already cover more then half of the world's second largest tropical rainforest. Initial data indicate most lack even a basic plan for managing these forests.

Government policies often favour short-term economic gain, instead of long-term stewardship. In Chile, for example, government policies encourage people to clear native forests that are thousands of years old to make way for plantations of exotic species. As a result, the prehistoric araucaria forests and the second oldest living trees in the world, the alerce, are in danger. In Venezuela, logging and mining practices threaten one of the most pristine forests on earth.

Four years ago, when Dirk Bryant and his colleagues wrote the first assessment of the world's intact forests, they found out that only one fifth of the world's historic forest cover remained as large intact tracts. At the current rate of destruction, they estimated 40 per cent of what remained would be lost in 10 to 20 years.

"Our most recent studies show that we have underestimated the destruction in some countries," said Bryant. Two years ago, he started Global Forest Watch to keep track of what is left of the remaining intact forests of the world.

"There is good news. Our work is already making some impact which will hopefully conserve more of the intact forests or slow down their destruction," said Jim Strittholt, head of Global Forest Watch - USA. "For example, our mapping work is helping the private sector make better business decisions, which help safeguard the environment."