The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced on 22 January that the global rate of net forest loss has slowed to 35,000 square miles (89,000 sq km) per year, an area a little larger than that of Belgium, showing a rate 20% lower than the global figure previously reported in 1995.

Forests are disappearing most rapidly in Africa and Latin America, whereas in Asia, the reduction of natural forests is largely compensated by new plantation forests. In Europe and North America the forest area is increasing, according to the FAO survey. Overall, the world contains around 6000 square meters of forest for each person, which is reducing by 12 square meters every year.

The survey shows that the countries experiencing by far the most rapid deforestation are the African nations of Cape Verde and Burundi with annual loss of 9.3% and 9% of forest cover respectively annually between 1990 and 2000. Brazil, with the world’s largest rainforest, was the country with the greatest loss of forest between 1990 and 2000, witnessing the disappearance of 85,000 square miles (217,000 sq km), an area larger than the size of Scotland, in this time.

The highest growth in forest cover is in Uruguay, with a 5% annual increase between 1990 and 2000, followed by Israel (4.9%), Egypt (3.4%) and Belarus (3.2%). However, the greatest increase in terms of size was in China, with an increase of 70,000 sq miles (178,000 sq km) in forest area, an area the size of Holland and Belgium combined, between 1990 and 2000.

The current survey is the latest in global forest assessments by FAO spanning a 50-year period and the first of its kind to be implemented using a uniform global definition of forest. The findings reveal a diverse picture, where some countries still have very high levels of deforestation (mainly conversion of forests to other land uses) while others show significant increases in forest cover through plantations or natural re-growth . According to FAO Director General Dr. Jacques Diouf these differences “cannot be explained by population pressure on forests alone”, but rather are the results of “economic developments at large, and national forest or land use policies”.

The survey included land with tree crown cover of more than 10% and area of more than 0.5 hectares, where trees should be able to reach a minimum height of five metres at maturity. In addition, young natural stands and all plantations established for forestry purposes which have yet to reach a crown density of 10% or tree height of five metres are included as forest, as are areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily unstocked as a result of human intervention or natural causes, but which are expected to revert to forest. Land predominantly used for agricultural practices was excluded.

“Although remote sensing has increased the information about forests in general, field surveys remain the main source of knowledge about forest dynamics and forest change,” said Dr. Hosny El-Lakany, Assistant Director General of the FAO, commenting on the new global assessment on forests. “FAO is now addressing the need for improved quality and relevance in forestry information in new proposals for future forest assessments to be discussed in March.”

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