How are the world’s forests getting along?

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Forests around the world

Most of the following information was gathered from the Australian Rainforest Information Centre’s web site, http://forests.org/ric/

South East Asian forests have now been decimated. The only really large area of tropical rainforest remaining is in the Amazon.

Some statistics

A 1997 report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in New York, found that ‘almost half the Earth’s original forest cover is gone, much of it destroyed within the past three decades’. Note that this means all forest types, not just rainforest. About 8,000 years ago, before humans did much damage, Earth’s forests covered around six billion hectares. About half (three billion hectares) of that remains today, of which about 40 percent (1.2 billion hectares) is large, relatively natural ecosystems. The WRI study found that commercial logging was "by far the greatest danger" to these forests in all regions of the world. As well as causing direct damage, logging opens areas up to clearing for agriculture, hunting and fuelwood gathering.

Outside of boreal regions, 75 percent of such forests are under moderate or high threat. The other 1.8 billion hectares of remaining forest is composed of smaller fragments which are still valuable, but do not provide such a safe environment for native flora and fauna.

A three year research project by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre found that about one tenth of the world’s tree species are currently threatened with extinction. A twenty year study by the World Conservation Union revealed that at least one in every eight of Earth’s plant species is now also under threat of extinction.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has recently estimated that one third of our planet’s natural resources have been consumed in the last three decades. They estimate that three percent of these resources are now being used each year.

Fires and Climate Change

During the last year massive fires have raged out of control, destroying millions of acres of ancient forest - for example in Mexico, Indonesia and northern Brazil. Respiratory diseases, malaria, floods, droughts and malnutrition have all increased in affected regions.

In Brazil, as poverty and overpopulation drive people further into the Amazon, small fires set by farmers to clear land burn out of control - due to unusually dry conditions created by El Nino. Similar scenarios have fuelled fires in Indonesia and other parts of the world, where logging and mining roads have brought the situation to a critical point. As more roads cut into forests, loggers, ranchers and farmers, who all use fire to clear land, are now able to access previously remote forest interiors.

The global climate is creating conditions that foster fires. As burning of fossil fuels and deforestation cause an unabated increase in greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures have been steadily rising - creating a vicious cycle. If trends continue, there will be serious repercussions for the global climate, including an increase in the frequency of drought in tropical areas.

It’s not all bad news...

In response to consumer demands, Canada’s biggest logging company MacMillan Bloedel has said that it will end all clearcutting in old growth forests.

Public pressure about environmental and human rights issues have contributed to Shell’s decision to pull out of the "Camisea Project", a gas field in Peru. Shell also pulled out of an oil project in Colombia when the local indigenous community threatened to commit mass suicide if they didn’t.

The Chinese government has at last made some efforts to curb big-time deforestation, in the wake of big-time floods; and the government of Surinam has said it will establish a protected nature reserve of some 1.6 million hectares, equivalent to one tenth of the country’s land area. It will be good if these moves result in tangible positive outcomes.

A worldwide campaign to end third world debt is underway, being organised by the British-based organisation Jubilee 2000. Debt is a factor contributing to forest losses in many regions of the world.

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