10 March 2003, Rome -- A new FAO assessment on the status of mangrove forests worldwide indicates that while the rate of mangrove deforestation is high, it has been gradually decreasing over the past 20 years.

According to the survey, the most comprehensive to date on the state of the world's mangrove forests, the mangrove area worldwide had fallen below 15 million hectares by the end of 2000, down from an estimated 19.8 million hectares in 1980. However, although mangrove deforestation continues, the rate of deforestation has slowed from 1.7 percent a year from 1980 to 1990 to 1.0 percent a year from 1990 to 2000.

"This study takes into account even the smallest countries. Even though they didn't add much to the total, the mangroves in these countries are very important at the local level. In fact, mangroves may be the only forest resource that they have," says Mette LÝyche Wilkie, FAO Forestry Officer.

A vital resource

Mangroves are usually found along tropical and sub-tropical coastlines. In addition to protecting the coast against erosion due to wind, waves and water currents, mangroves also host a number of animal species - including endangered mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, and provide nutrients to the marine food web and spawning grounds for a variety of fish and shellfish, including several commercial species. Mangroves are also a source of a vast range of wood and non-wood forest products, including timber, fuelwood, charcoal, fodder, thatch, honey and medicine, to name a few.

Mangrove deforestation threatens the survival of the species that live in these areas and contributes to land erosion and salinization of coastal soils.

"In many developing countries, coastal communities rely on mangrove forests to provide fuelwood for cooking, as well as protein in the form of fish and crustaceans," says Ms Wilkie. "Mangroves represent a vital resource for their daily subsistence and should be managed carefully to avoid overexploitation."

Numerous case studies have described how population growth in coastal areas has led to the conversion of mangrove areas for coastal infrastructure, rice or salt production and commercial aquaculture. But prior to the new estimates, reliable information on the status of mangrove areas and deforestation trends was scarce.

"Many organizations had been warning of the destruction of mangroves, but there were limited data to back this up at the global level," says Ms Wilkie. "This assessment has confirmed their warnings, but also shows that the rate of mangrove deforestation has decreased during the past decade."

The new assessment builds on a 1980 survey conducted by FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme, as well as the 2000 FAO Global Forest Resources Assessment. The current survey covers 121 countries - compared to 51 countries in the 1980 assessment - and is based on a trend analysis of 2 800 national and subnational data sets. It provides revised estimates of the world mangrove area in 1980 and 1990, a list of the most recent reliable estimates for each country and an estimate of the global mangrove area as of year 2000, based on analysis and extrapolation of past data.

Government sources, mangrove experts, local communities and non-governmental organizations were asked to contribute to the study or to validate information already gathered by FAO.

The results will soon be available from an online database on the FAO Forestry Web site. The data are also featured in the State of the World's Forests 2003 and will be published in a series of working papers on the summary results and on the database itself.

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