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Press Release 01/61


Geneva/Rome, 3 October 2001. - Tropical countries continue to lose 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" (SOFO), which was published today.

"During the 1990s, the loss of natural forests was 16.1 million hectares (ha) per year, of which 15.2 million occurred in the tropics", FAO said in its biannual report. This corresponds to annual losses of 0.4 percent globally and 0.8 percent in the tropics. 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. Those with the highest net gain of forest area during this period were China, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and the United States," the FAO report said.

The findings are based on 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 FAO published a global forest map on the distribution and location of forests.

Of the 15.2 million ha of natural forest lost annually in the tropics, 14.2 million ha were converted to other land uses and 1.0 million ha were converted to forest plantations. Outside tropical countries, 0.9 million ha of natural forest were lost per year, of which 0.5 million ha were converted to forest plantations and 0.4 million ha were converted to other land uses.

Natural forest expansion was estimated at 3.6 million ha annually in the past decade, of which 2.6 million ha were in non-tropical countries and 1.0 million ha in the tropics. "Forest expansion has been occurring for several decades in many industrialised countries, especially where agriculture is no longer an economically viable land use," FAO said.

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

FAO said that the major causes for the loss and degradation of forests are: conversion to other land uses (mainly agriculture), pests and diseases, fire, overexploitation of forest products (industrial wood, fuelwood), poor harvesting practices, overgrazing, air pollution and storms.

Concerning the bans and restrictions on commercial logging, the report said that they have in some countries contributed to the conservation of natural forests. In others, however, "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 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 ha by the end of 2000."

However, this represents only about 2 percent of the world's total forest area. "Notably, 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."

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; processing forest raw materials without a licence. 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 favourable environment for forest crime and corruption, according to the FAO report.

"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. And some governments have the political will for reducing illegal activities and corruption in the forest sector. These countries have made significant headway in overcoming the resistance of entrenched and powerful vested interests." 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, FAO said. Hundreds of thousands to 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 realise 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, widely 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, according to the report. 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. Other species threatened by the bushmeat trade include the forest elephant, the water chevrotain, six duiker species, the leopard and the golden cat," FAO said.


The SOFO report is available on FAO website:

For more information please call in Rome the FAO media relations office,
tel. 0039.06.57052232 or in Geneva Pierre Antonios cell phone 0039.3482523807

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