UN: Farming threatens forests

Rome – Ambitious planting programmes in Asia and the US have helped slow the global rate of deforestation but farmers are still cutting trees to clear land at an alarmingly high rate, a UN survey released on Thursday shows.

Forests absorb and store greenhouse gases so deforestation can exacerbate mean the effects of climate change, said Mette Loyche Wilkie, co-ordinator of the assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Eduardo Rojas, assistant director-general for forestry, said the study of the last decade showed the first decrease in global deforestation since experts began tracking the phenomenon.

Planting programmes, notably in China, India and Vietnam, helped dramatically slow the rate of forest loss, from 8.3 million hectares a year in the 1990s, to 5.2 million hectares per year from 2000 to 2010, said forestry experts presenting the study at the Rome headquarters of the UN agency.

“Brazil and Indonesia, which had the highest loss of forests in the 1990s, have significantly reduced their deforestation rates,” the study found. And the tree planting programmes, including in the US, added millions of hectares of new forests annually.

Farming vs. forests

But South America lost 4 million hectares annually over the last decade, and Africa 3.4 million hectares annually.

Severe drought in Australia since 2000 has contributed to forest loss, the report said.

Noting that China’s reforestation programme is scheduled to end in 2020, Wilkie said: “We have a small window of opportunity” to keep reducing the deforestation rate in the coming decade or risk going “back to the high rates of the 1990s”.

Agri-businesses buying up pristine forests for conversion into farm land have raised worry in parts of South America, Africa and Asia, but Wilkie said it was unclear how much this factored into the loss of forests for farms.

A UN study, to be completed by the end of next year, is aimed at determining the role such purchases play in deforestation, she said.

Trees are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The mountain pine beetle, apparently surviving winters in larger numbers due to less frequently freezing temperatures, have been decimating pine forests in western Canada and western US, noted Wilkie. The scale of the insects’ damage has been “massive and unprecedented” since the late 1990s, destroying a total of 11 million hectares, she said.

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