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Will the last
of the ancient
forests survive
in 2050?


G. Henne and C. Thies

Gudrun Henne is Forest Adviser, Political Unit.
Christoph Thies is Policy/Strategy Coordinator
for the Forest Campaign, both with Greenpeace
International, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The world's forests are in an alarming situation. Of the original forest cover half is gone and only one-fifth remains as large tracts of ancient forest - i.e. forest ecosystems shaped mainly by nature where human impacts have been comparatively small. Yet it is in these natural forest ecosystems that the majority of forest-dwelling plant and animal species find their last refuge.

The ancient forest that remains is under threat. For example, industrial logging continues to open up Africa's forests, promoting illegal trade in bushmeat from chimpanzees and other apes; and frontier forests in Asia are being turned into oil-palm plantations under the scientifically false pretext of preventing climate change. Illegal logging - violating laws on nature protection, indigenous peoples' rights and international commitments - is hardly addressed, and there is not a single region where ancient forests are adequately protected. Jane Goodall (in the United Kingdom's Daily Mail of 28 September 2000) has warned that within the next 20 years most of the primates, our closest relatives, will have become extinct. Other forest-dwelling fauna such as the kermode or spirit bear of Canada, the Amur tiger of Siberia, paradise birds in Papua New Guinea and the jaguar of the Amazon are also threatened with extinction.

Continued degradation and destruction of the last ancient forest will also see the disappearance of traditional forest-dwelling peoples, their culture, language and religion. Displacement and the erosion of traditional values and practices usually leads to poverty and cultural deprivation.

These are not the only consequences of continued forest destruction up to 2050. The annihilation of forests can lead to an escalation in natural disasters such as landslides, storms, droughts, floods and desertification as the release of stored carbon (of which ancient forests harbour the largest stock on earth's surface) further disrupts the world's precarious climate. Local, regional and global water cycles will be destroyed, energy transfer from tropical to temperate zones will decrease because of loss of evaporation from tropical rain forests, and soils will be eroded. Water pollution can increase as the land loses its capacity to purify. We will all suffer the consequences, wherever we are.


Greenpeace holds the view that, with sufficient public, political and corporate will, we can still save at least what is left. In theory, the commitment is already there, and has been since 1992. Today, 176 countries and the European Union are Parties to the Earth Summit's Convention on Biological Diversity.

In the convention, governments across the world have agreed to establish systems of protected areas and to protect the rights and traditional lifestyles of indigenous and local communities. Member countries have agreed to cover the incremental costs that accrue to developing countries for conserving biodiversity for the benefit of all of us. Parties to the convention have agreed to promote sustainable use of forest biodiversity. They have agreed to including biodiversity in all sectoral activities, plans and programmes, including the forest sector. They have agreed. But they have not acted. The years following the Rio Summit have been years of inertia.

2002 provides a global opportunity to turn the tide. At the sixth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, governments of the world will decide on the work programme on forest biodiversity for the eight years to come. They can give ancient forests a future - if they finally agree to establish systems of protected forest areas. Governments will have to pay for this change, as ancient forests are precious - and therefore do not come free. The convention recognizes biodiversity (of which ancient forest biodiversity is an integral and perhaps the most important part) as a common concern of humankind. The concept of common concern implies a responsibility for all of us to save ancient forests. What each country and each of us can do depends on our scope of action. Those who do not bear the responsibility on the ground have a financial responsibility.

A fund for ancient forests would have to compensate companies to a reasonable degree for the loss of benefits from granted but withdrawn logging concessions, and developing countries for the loss of revenues from ancient forest areas zoned for development, at least for a transition period. But normative change and compensation are not enough. Implementation is poor in most countries, and corruption is common. Institutions need to be staffed and equipped and people properly trained to set up, manage and monitor protected areas. Traditional forest dwellers should become custodians of the forests and should have proper legal and administrative support, as well as extractive rights for specific forest resources.

Outside protected areas, forests should be managed according to internationally agreed standards, keeping their natural composition and diversity of life forms. Transfer of technologies for better harvesting, marketing of non-wood forest products and valuation of services of ancient forests are other issues that governments need to put in their work programme in 2002.

This new regime would be monitored by an independent Ancient Forests Compliance Body under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which would work closely with government officials, representatives of indigenous and local communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the forest sector in an open manner, seeking to optimize implementation in good faith.

Most government officials need public support and encouragement in order to move. In 2050, the authors will be 84 and 93, if we are still alive. How old will you be? Will you have to tell your grandchildren that you were responsible for the extinction of the spirit bear and orang-utans because you were too greedy, mean or lazy? Or will you proudly tell them that you were one of those who fought and won the battle to save the last of the ancient forests?

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