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2. Status of Natural Forest Availability for Timber Production

2.1 Natural forests, harvests and forest growth - a delicate balance
2.2 Removal of natural forests from production - recent trends

There were 3 454 million hectares of forest, including some 3 221 million hectares of natural forest, throughout the world as of 1995 (FAO 1998a, 1999). It is estimated that about 48.5 percent of natural forests are potentially available for timber harvest. Global distribution and availability differ significantly by region. The largest aggregate area of natural forests is in South America and Russia. The availability of natural forest for harvest is greatest (in terms of actual area) for Russia and North America, while the share of natural forests deemed available for harvesting within a region is the greatest for Europe (85.1%), Russia (76.0%), Asia (56.6%) and North America (56.0%).

Only Russia presently holds significant areas of undisturbed natural forests (514 million ha; 77 percent) that are available for harvesting (Figure 1). In contrast, all natural forests in Europe, North America and Central America that are available for harvest are considered disturbed. Natural forests in legally protected areas are unavailable for harvesting. Additional natural forests, as defined by FAO, can also be unavailable for harvesting by reason of:

I. Physical conditions and terrain, such as steep slopes.

II. Remote locations and limited access through lack of infrastructure (roads, etc) and transport.

III. Other factors, such as low productivity, poor stand quality, lack of commercial species, etc.

Figure 1: Distribution of natural forests available for harvesting by condition and region
Source: FAO, 1998a
Overall, only 290 million hectares (17.5%) of natural forests are unavailable for harvesting under legally protected status. Asia, Russia and South America lead in the legal designation of protected natural forests[1] in terms of area. Some 256 million hectares are considered as unavailable for harvesting due to physical constraints (Category I) with the majority in South America, followed by North America and Africa. Remoteness and lack of infrastructure (Category II) accounts for over 365 million hectares of which about 69 percent is in South America. Degraded and poor quality natural forests (Category III) account for over 746 million hectares or over 45 percent of natural forests not available for harvesting, with significant amounts in Central America, Russia, Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and North America.

2.1 Natural forests, harvests and forest growth - a delicate balance

A large majority of timber production is harvested from currently available natural forest. Globally, an estimated 3 354 million m3 was removed from the world’s forests of which 56 percent is woodfuel. Woodfuel is most significant in Asia and Africa while industrial roundwood production was heavily concentrated in North America, Asia and Europe.

Industrial roundwood removals illustrate the delicate relationship between estimated growth of commercial species in the available natural forests in comparison to industrial roundwood production (Figure 2). While the picture may give an impression that an overall balance of harvest and growth has been achieved, this is not so since much of the current harvesting is not sustainable and that the productivity of degraded forests are low.

Figure 2. Industrial roundwood production and growth of commercial species by region

Sources: FAO, 1998a, and FAO, 1999
The natural forests most under pressure for harvesting, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, are also the regions with the lowest net growth rates from currently available natural forests. Further, these regions also are experiencing the most severe deforestation and forest degradation (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Deforestation by region between 1990 and 1995

Source: FAO, 1999

2.2 Removal of natural forests from production - recent trends

Deforestation is the most critical factor in the reduction of natural forest area available for harvesting. An estimated 11.4 million hectares of natural forests are deforested annually. However, the recent trend to designate additional protected areas is also significant, removing natural forests from the production forest base. FAO has estimated that some 290 million hectares are now under some form of legal protection. Between 1970-1990 the number of legally designated protected areas increased by about 140 percent, while the gross area (including non-forest) increased from about 550 million hectares to almost 1 200 million hectares (FAO 1998a).

[1] Legal designation as a protected area, however, seldom assures effective protection on the ground. The actual status of such areas may be quite good, or alternatively there may be continuing degradation and deforestation.

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