Forestry Committee reviews state of the world's forests

Heads of forest services and other senior government officials representing more than 100 countries will assemble at FAO Headquarters 10-13 March for the thirteenth session of FAO's Committee on Forestry (COFO). The meeting will review a newly released study, The State of the World's Forests, 1997 (SOFO 1997), which features data suggesting that deforestation in developing countries continues at a high rate, although it has slowed over the past few years.

The biennial sessions of COFO serve as a forum for governments to identify emerging policy and technical issues, to seek solutions and to advise FAO and others on appropriate action. In addition to reviewing the new report on the state of the world's forests, the agenda for the 1997 session includes discussion on several other major issues:

  • progress towards sustainable forest development and follow-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED);
  • implications for forestry of the Plan of Action of the World Food Summit;
  • conservation and sustainable use of forest genetic resources; and
  • FAO's programme of work in forestry for the coming two years.

An estimated global net loss of 56.3 million ha of forest cover (natural forests and plantations) was recorded from 1990 to 1995, according to the SOFO 1997 report, representing a decrease of 65.1 million ha in developing countries and an increase of 8.8 million ha in developed countries. While the loss of natural forests (excluding plantations) in developing countries remains at a high level, the rate of loss appears to be slowing: natural forests in developing countries decreased by 13.7 million ha annually over the 1990-1995 period, compared with 15.5 ha per year over the 1980-1990 period.

The 200-page report, released in conjunction with the COFO meeting, looks at the current status of the world's forests, major policy developments over the reporting period (1995-1997) and recent trends and future directions in the forestry sector.

The report says deforestation was highest in the tropical zone of the developing world. In percentage terms, the highest annual rate of loss from 1990 to 1995 was in tropical Asia Oceania, where natural forests were reduced at a rate of almost 1 percent per year. The actual area deforested each year was greatest in tropical zones of Latin America and the Caribbean, where some 5.7 million ha of natural forest were lost each year, adding up over the five-year period to a deforested area larger than Ecuador.

Analysis of data from the period 1980 to 1990 reveals significant regional variations in the uses to which deforested land was converted, suggesting differences in the pressures leading to deforestation.

In Latin America, changes in forests were dominated by conversion to "other land cover", a category that includes permanent agriculture, cattle ranching and water reservoirs. This suggests that much deforestation in 1980-1990 resulted from centrally planned operations such as government resettlement schemes and large-scale cattle ranching. Such schemes have slowed down in the 1990s. In Africa, on the other hand, changes were mostly from forest to shrubs and short fallow agriculture, indicating an extension of subsistence farming under the pressure of rural population growth. Deforestation in Asia appears to result almost equally from rural population pressure and centrally planned operations, including government resettlement schemes and large plantation programmes.

Meanwhile, in the developed world, although total forest area is slowly increasing, some aspects of forest condition have seen little significant improvement, according to the report. "Even though the widespread death of European forests due to air pollution which was predicted by many in the 1980s did not occur, deteriorating forest condition remains a serious concern in Europe and North America." Major threats to forests in the developed world include forest fires, pests, diseases and air pollution.

The demands for food by expanding populations in the developing world are expected to increase pressures on the world's forest lands. FAO estimates that global food production will need to increase by 1.8 percent per year until 2010 to meet rising demand. To achieve this, some 90 million ha of new land may be brought into agriculture in the developing countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

SOFO 1997 estimates that half of this amount is likely to come from forests, and says, "The questions are not whether forest land will be converted to agricultural land, but rather, what forest land will be converted and whether such land will provide greater benefit being managed for agricultural production than for forest goods and services?"

The report also marks trends in the supply and demand for wood and non-wood forest products and notes increasing diversification of raw material use, greater utilization of wood residues, increased paper recycling and increased efficiency in sawing practices.

The report concludes that continued progress towards more widespread sustainable forest management will depend on:

  • improved information on the world's forest resources;
  • greater value of land as forests;
  • continued constructive dialogue between interested groups; and
  • improved coordination among the various entities involved in forest management and resource use.

Interview with David A. Harcharik, Assistant Director-General of FAO's Forestry Department

10 March 1997

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