Earth’s forests though better managed continue to shrink, says FAO

Forests, the size of South Africa, or 129 million hectares lost in last 25 years, mostly tropical

Brazil reported the largest annual loss while China reported the largest annual gain

India chops most wood, 88 % of which is firewood

Forests contributes about USD 600 billion annually to global GDP, or about 0.8 percent of global GDP

12.7 million people are employed in forests, 79 percent of which is in Asia




The world’s forests continue to shrink as populations increase and forest land is converted for agriculture and other uses, but over the past 25 years the rate of net global deforestation has slowed down by more than 50 percent, according to The Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015Over half of the world’s primary forest is found in only three countries: Brazil, Canada and Russia.

Forests are better managed and an increasing amount of forest areas have come under protection while more countries are improving forest management. This is often done through legislation and includes the measuring and monitoring of forest resources and with greater involvement of local communities in planning and in developing policies. The FAO study that was first published in 1948 covers 234 countries and territories and was presented at this week’s World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa. The report stresses the critical importance of forests to people, the environment, and the global economy.

Forests play a fundamental role in combating rural poverty, ensuring food security and providing people with livelihoods. And they deliver vital environmental services such as clean air and water, the conservation of biodiversity and combating climate change. We will not succeed in reducing the impact of climate change and promoting sustainable development if we do not preserve our forests and sustainably use the many resources they offer us | FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, launching the report in Durban

Biggest losses in Africa and South America Bulk of the world’s forest is natural forest-93 percent of global forest area or 3.7 billion hectares while plantation forests accounts for 7 percent of the world’s overall forest area, having increased by over 110 million hectares since 1990. Most deforestation has taken place in tropics-Africa, South America and Australia. The loss in Africa is four times more than the world average, a concern raised by Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of African Union Commission.

In contrast, net forest area has increased in Asia and temperate countries.

Top ten countries by forest area/FAO

Top ten countries by forest area/FAO

Better-managed forests 

Globally, natural forest area is decreasing and planted forest area is increasing and while most forests remain publicly owned, ownership by private individuals and communities has increased. In all cases FAO stresses the importance of sustainable forest management practices. The report distinguishes between natural and plantation forests.

Natural forests, the least touched by humankind, contribute to conserving genotypes – the genetic constitutions of organisms – and in maintaining the composition of natural tree species while providing vital habitats to endangered animal species. They help replenish groundwater supplies crucial for drinking, agriculture and other uses. They also protect soils from erosion, avalanches and landslides, everything aggravated by continuous environmental degradation and climate change.

Planted forests, are often established for production, and commercial benefits and where well-managed can provide various forest goods and service and help reduce the pressure on natural forests. There is an increased private ownership, and private companies having increased management responsibilities for public forests and likely to continue. On the other hand, decentralization of forests from national to sub-national levels is likely to continue in many countries.

Countries with the largest public forest area under community management are Brazil and Colombia. Timor-Leste and Saint Pierre and Miquelon reported having 100 percent of their publicly-owned forest under community management rights.

Safeguarding biodiversity

Forests are rich in biologically diversity, and home to more than half of the terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. FAO warns that despite conservation efforts the threat of biodiversity loss persists and is likely to continue with deforestation, forest degradation – a reduction in tree biomass density from human or natural causes such as logging, fire, and other events – pollution and climate change all having negative impacts.

Currently, forest area primarily designated for biodiversity conservation accounts for only 13 percent of the world’s forest, or 524 million hectares, with the largest areas reported in Brazil and the United States.

Addressing climate change

Deforestation and forest degradation increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but forest and tree growth absorbs carbon dioxide which is the main greenhouse gas. FAO notes how a more sustainable management of forests will result in a reduction in carbon emissions from forests and has a vital role to play in addressing the impacts of climate change.

FAO has estimated that total carbon emissions from forests decreased by more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2015, mainly due to a slowdown in global deforestation rates.

Economic benefit and employment

The report mentioned that there has been an increase in global wood consumption and demand for wood products is likely to continue. In high-income countries the share of woodfuel will probably increase as wood is considered a climate friendly, renewable energy source, part of which will come from mill residues and lower-quality wood. There are already efforts made at promoting woodfuel.


Top ten countries by wood removal

Top ten countries by wood removal

It has been mentioned that the value added from forestry is less important at the national scale than it is in local economies where communities and regions can be highly dependent upon forest-related income.  Employment in the forest consists mainly of harvesting and silvicultural, including woodfuel and forest produce collection. However data on these are heavily under-reported particularly for informal or part-time employment. In terms of women’s income from forests, countries with the highest number of women working in the forest were Bangladesh (600 000), China (301 000) and Mali (180 000). 

Another study from Yale university reported in journal Nature says that there are more trees in the world than previously estimated. There are approximately 3.04 trillion trees in the world and is eight times the previous estimate of 400 billion. The study also finds that human activity is detrimental to tree abundance worldwide. Around 15 billion trees are cut down each year, the researchers estimate; since the onset of agriculture about 12,000 years ago, the number of trees worldwide has dropped by 46%.

Money for this comprehensive assessment comes from the governments of Canada, Finland, Japan, USA, and the EU. About 300  national correspondents who are appointed by respective governments supported this process.

Click here to download the report.

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