All but seven percent of the world's tropical forests are “managed poorly or not at all” despite efforts to boost sustainability, according to a major report released Tuesday.
Forces driving forest destruction across four continents – including rising food and fuel prices, and growing demand for timber – threaten to overwhelm future conservation efforts, warned the 420-page study by the Japan-based International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), an intergovernmental agency group that promotes sustainable use of forests.
“Less than 10-percent of all forests are sustainably managed, and we expect deforestation to continue,” said Steven Johnson, ITTO's communications director.
“The economic rationale is just so compelling. Revenue streams coming from standing forests just can't compete against conversion to agriculture or biofuel crops, pasture land for livestock, or palm oil plantation,” he said by phone.
Tropical forests play an essential role in Earth's carbon cycle, absorbing about a quarter of CO2 emissions generated by human activity.
Deforestation, which releases stored carbon, accounts for 10 to 20 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions globally.
Forests are also a lifeline for nearly a billion people around the world living at or close to subsistence.
The report, “Status of Tropical Forest Management 2011,” covers 33 countries and about 90 percent of global trade in tropical timber, and presents itself as the most comprehensive assessment of its kind ever conducted.
So-called “natural permanent tropical forest” currently stand at 761 million hectares worldwide, it estimates, with just over half “production forest,” and the rest “protection forest.”
The good news is that the area under sustainable management has grown by 50 percent in five years to 53 million hectares, equivalent to the surface of Thailand or Spain.
But these gains must be stacked against the millions of hectares of tropical forests cleared each year for crops, pastures or development, the report cautioned.
Millions more are degraded by unsustainable or illegal logging.
“We are adding about three million hectares a year to the area we consider to be sustainable,” said Johnson. “But at the same time, overall we are losing about 13 million hectares a year.”
In the Amazon Basin alone, forest cover shrank by about 3.6 million hectares per year from 2000 to 2010, followed by Southeast Asia, which lost one million hectares annually, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
“We are of course happy to see the progress that has occurred in the last five years, but it still represents an incremental advance, and some countries are lagging behind,” said ITTO Executive Director Emmanuel Ze Meka.
Cambodia, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Liberia and Surname were singled out as having especially weak forest management practices and regimes.
Countries that had made notable progress towards protecting and maintaining health forests included Brazil, Gabon, Guyana, Malaysia and Peru.
The study also suggests that UN programmes to boost the value of standing forests as bulkheads against climate change and certain market incentives are falling far short of their goals.
Tropical woods certified as sustainable account for only a tiny slice of the market, for example, as consumers balk at paying a premium.
“Certification is voluntary, and is expensive,” said Jurgen Blaser, head of the Swiss foundation Intercooperation, and one of the report's authors.
The proposed mechanism within the UN climate talks, called REDD+ – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), plus sustainable management – “is taking a lot of time,” Blaser added. “The pace is worrying.”