Concentrate efforts on 15 countries’ forests United Nations says

Efforts to save the world’s last, critically important forests should initially focus on just a handful of countries, a new satellite-based study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found.

Scientists from UNEP, working with researchers from the United States Geological Survey and NASA, found that over 80% of the planet’s remaining closed forests, which include virgin, old growth and naturally- regenerated woodlands, are located in just 15 countries and that targeting scarce conservation funds on these key nations may pay dividends in terms of environmental results. Importantly, the survey also reveals that the pressure from people and population growth on some 88% of these remaining closed forests, such as those in Bolivia and Peru, is low, which give well-focused and well-funded conservation efforts a real chance of success. However, others, such as the remaining closed forests in India and China, are under more pressure from human activity and may require a bigger effort to conserve and protect, the report says.

The report, An Assessment of the Status of the World’s Remaining Closed Forests is, its authors claim, the most comprehensive and reliable assessment ever made of global forest cover, and has used satellite-based information to identify the extent and distribution of the forests. These forests are defined as those with a canopy closure of more than 40%, which is considered vital if the forest is to be considered healthy and able to perform all its known environmental and ecological functions effectively. Such forests are also home to some of the world’s rarest and most unique species, including the elusive cloud leopard of Russia and the lion-tailed macaque of the Western Ghats in India.

Ashbindu Singh, North American Regional Coordinator at UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment, said that 80.6% of the world’s remaining closed forests are spread over 2.3 billion hectares in 15 nations covering just over 30% of their territory: Russia, with 670 million hectares of closed forests covering some 40% of its land area; Canada, with 369 million hectares, covering just over 37% of its land area; Brazil with 361.5 million hectares, or 42% of its land area; the United States with 237 million hectares, or 25%; The Democratic Republic of the Congo with 116 million hectares, or 49%; China, 111.5 million hectares, or 12%; Indonesia, 93 million hectares, or 49%; Mexico, 60 million hectares, or 30%; and Peru, 59 million hectares, or 45%. India, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Australia and Papua New Guinea contain the remainder of the largest closed forests which are top priority for conservation.

While in India, 43% of closed forests have high population densities and in China the rate is 36%, almost all closed forest areas in Peru and Bolivia are free from high population pressure, Singh says. Other countries free from high population pressures and with significant closed forests include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Russia and Canada.

The report shows that remaining closed forests in Venezuela enjoy the highest level of official protection with 63% situated in protected areas. This is followed by Bolivia, with 30%, Colombia, 25% and Indonesia, 20%.

However, Russia has the lowest level of protection with just 2% protected, followed by Mexico, with 3%, China, 3.6%; the United States, 6.7% and Canada, 7.4%. It also found that 53 countries have more than 30% of their land cover under closed forests and that some of those, especially ones with low population densities, could also eventually be the focus of vigorous conservation efforts after the forests of the first 15 countries have been made secure. Candidates for this second wave of action might include Gabon and Congo in Africa; Belize in Central America and French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname in South America.

The report calls on governments in the key 15 countries concerned to draft action plans detailing how they propose to conserve their remaining closed forests. The level of protected areas needs to be sharply increased, there must be tougher policing of such sites alongside crackdowns on smuggling and poaching of trees and wildlife, better communications and training for park staff are needed as well as tighter national conservation laws, the report says. It also calls for road and dam construction to be subject to “rigorous scrutiny” and the conversion of forest land to be allowed only after exhausting other alternatives.

Wealthy countries should invest in the protection of the last remaining closed forests situated in poorer countries, which the report says is likely to be relatively inexpensive, with Debt-for-Nature Swaps, in which developing country debts are reduced by industrialised countries in return for closed forest, should be vigorously encouraged. UNEP cites schemes such as its recently launched Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), whereby it is to establish conservation projects in forests across Africa and Indonesia to help save the gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo and orangutan, as one way of helping the world’s remaining closed forests. The projects focus on issues such as ecotourism and forest protection, supporting staff in national parks, educating local people about the importance of great apes and encouraging alternatives to exploiting the animals for food.

“Short of a miraculous transformation in the attitude of people and governments, the Earth’s remaining closed-canopy forests and their associated biodiversity are destined to disappear in the coming decades,” commented Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP. “Knowing it is unlikely that all forests can be protected, it would be better to focus conservation priorities on those target areas that have the best prospects for continued existence. I believe this new study provides this new focus. I urge governments, communities and international organisations to act on our findings and recommendations.”

UNEP is also soon to publish a ‘Strategy on Global Forest Assessment and Monitoring’, which will outline other actions the organisation will be taking in support of forest conservation, including developing its monitoring and assessment of closed forests to create a permanent forest monitoring system.

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