The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number Two                           Late Fall 2001

Tropical Forests Continue to Fall

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

The major causes for the loss and degradation of forests are - conversion to other land uses such as agriculture, pests and diseases, fire, overexploitation of forest products for industrial wood and fuelwood, poor harvesting practices, overgrazing, air pollution and storms, the UN agency reported.

Cleared for cattle pasture, this burning hillsidewas once covered with lush tropical rainforest.

"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.

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

The findings are based on the FAO's Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000, the most recent and comprehensive assessment of the status and trends of forest resources worldwide. For the first time, the FAO published a global forest map on the distribution and location of forests.

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.

"Forest expansion has been occurring for several decades in many industrialized countries, especially where agriculture is no longer an economically viable land use," FAO said.

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.

Bans and restrictions on commercial logging have in some countries contributed to the conservation of natural forests, the FAO says. But in other countries, "they have negatively affected the forest sector and local communities or have simply transferred the problem of overharvesting to other countries. The decision to use bans should be based on a thorough analysis of their potential effects and of alternative means to achieve the same results," the report cautions.

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 percent 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 percent of the world's forests are under protected area status.

Efforts to improve forest management will only be successful if forest crime and corruption can be reduced, the report stressed. "Illegal and corrupt activities threaten the world's forests in many countries, particularly but not exclusively in forest rich developing countries."

In some cases, and as a consequence of trade liberalization and globalization, illegal logging and trade appear to be growing, the report said.

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.

High timber values, low salaries of government officials, broad discretionary powers of local forestry officers, poor objective information, a large number of poorly designed regulations and the improbability of harsh punishment create a favorable environment for forest crime and corruption, the FAO warns.

"However, recent years have witnessed some encouraging developments. Non-governmental organizations and private sector institutions have launched effectively campaigns against illegal activities and corruption and have triggered action to combat them.

Some governments have the political will for reducing illegal activities and corruption in the forest sector. These countries have made headway in overcoming the resistance of entrenched and powerful vested interests, the FAO notes. The keys for combating illegal activities are improved monitoring systems, simpler laws and their strict enforcement.

The 1990s were marked by periods of severe drought, setting the stage for devastating wildfires to occur in practically every corner of the world, the FAO reports. Millions of hectares burn annually in dry West Africa, large areas of Africa south of the Equator, central Asia, southern South America and Australia. 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. Working towards forestry practices with community involvement is an important strategy to better conserve natural resources while reducing the impacts of wildfires.

Commenting on forest based wildlife in developing countries, the FAO report noted that "unsustainable hunting, especially commercial hunting, is the major cause of what is known as the empty forest syndrome - the elimination of most of the animal life by hunting." Meat from wild animals, known as bushmeat, has long been a staple of rural people in many parts of the world but, with urbanization, the demand for bushmeat is increasingly being met by commercial hunters and traders.

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. "Other species threatened by the bushmeat trade include the forest elephant, the water chevrotain, six duiker species, the leopard and the golden cat."

The State of the World's Forests 2001 report is available online at:

Copyright 2001 Environment News Service (ENS)

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