The UN General Assembly has designated 2011 as International Year of Forests. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), based in Rome, has conducted an assessment of the world’s forest resources every five years since 1946. Its most recent assessment, published in October, covers forests — or lack of forests — in 233 countries. Here, in a series of edited excerpts, Diplomat reports some of the significant conclusions of FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment.
Forests cover 31 percent of total land area (one hectare = 2.47 acres). The world’s total forest area in 2010 is estimated to be just over 4 billion hectares, corresponding to an average of 0.6 hectares of forest per capita. However, the area of forest is unevenly distributed. The five most forest-rich countries (Russia, Brazil, Canada, the United States and China) account for more than half of the total forest area (53 percent), while 64 countries with a combined population of 2 billion people have forest on no more than 10 percent of their land area. These include a number of fairly large countries in arid zones, as well as many small island developing states (SIDS) and dependent territories. Ten of these have no forests at all.
The total area of other wooded land is estimated to be at least 1.1 billion hectares, equivalent to 9 percent of the total land area. The total area of other land with tree cover was reported to be 79 million hectares, but is undoubtedly much higher as information availability was limited. The rate of deforestation shows signs of decreasing, but is still alarmingly high.
Around 13 million hectares of forest were converted to other uses — largely agriculture — or lost through natural causes each year in the last decade. This compares with a revised figure of 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s. Both Brazil and Indonesia, which had the highest net loss of forest in the 1990s, have significantly reduced their rate of loss, while in Australia, severe drought and forest fires have exacerbated the loss of forest since 2000.
Afforestation and natural expansion of forests in some countries have significantly reduced the net loss of forest area.
The net change in forest area in the period 2000-2010 is estimated at -5.2 million hectares per year at the global level (an area about the size of Costa Rica). This is down from -8.3 million hectares per year in the period 1990-2000. This substantial reduction is due to both a decrease in the deforestation rate and an increase in the area of new forest established through planting or seeding and the natural expansion of existing forests.
More than 90 percent of forest area consists of naturally regenerated forests.
Primary forests — forests of native species in which there are no clearly visible signs of past or present human activity — are estimated to occupy 36 percent of the total forest area. Other naturally regenerated forests make up some 57 percent, while planted forests account for an estimated 7 percent, of the total forest area.
The area of mangroves continues to decline, while the area of bamboo and rubber plantations is increasing.
The total area of mangroves is estimated at 15.6 million hectares as of 2010, down from 16.1 million hectares in 1990. Nearly half the total mangrove area (47 percent) is found in five countries: Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, Australia and Mexico. The area of bamboo is difficult to assess, as these species often occur as patches within forests or as clusters outside them. Nevertheless, preliminary findings based on information from 33 of the main bamboo-rich countries indicate that the total area is about 31.5 million hectares. Rubber plantations are found in relatively few countries — primarily in Southeast Asia and Africa — and cover an estimated 10 million hectares. While the area of rubber increased rapidly in the 1990s, the rate of increase is now beginning to slow down and is currently decreasing in several countries.
Forests contain more carbon than the entire atmosphere.
The world’s forests store more than 650 billion tonnes of carbon, 44 percent in the biomass, 11 percent in dead wood and litter, and 45 percent in the soil. While sustainable management, planting and rehabilitation of forests can conserve or increase forest carbon stocks, deforestation, degradation and poor forest management reduce them. For the world as a whole, carbon stocks in forest biomass decreased by an estimated 0.5 billion tonnes annually during the period 2005–2010. This was mainly because of a reduction in the global forest area and occurred despite an increase in growing stock per hectare in some regions.
Considerable progress has been made towards reversing the overall trend of forest area loss, and several variables related to the extent of forest resources show no significant negative trends — and even a positive trend over time in some countries and regions. Yet deforestation, including uncontrolled conversion of forests to agricultural land, continues at an alarmingly high rate in many countries. Considerable efforts are needed to ensure the overall trend in extent of forest resources is positive or stable in all regions.