According to international NGO, the World Resources Institute (WRI), deforestation rates have increased in tropical Africa, remained constant in Central America, and declined only slightly in tropical Asia and South America, leading to the conclusion that globally deforestation may not be slowing down, and may in fact be increasing in tropical areas. This opinion is in stark contrast with the UN Food and Agriculture (FAO)’s latest assessment of the world’s forests which reported a 20% drop in the rate of deforestation globally since 1995 (see related story).

The WRI report, which was endorsed by the WWF, points out that understanding the true rate of deforestation is made more confusing because FAO’s ‘net rate of change’ measures the combined change in natural forest area and plantation area. During the 1990s, WRI says, an average of 11,500 square miles (30,000 sq km) of new plantations were planted globally each year, which FAO counts as offsetting natural forest loss.

However, if new plantations are excluded from consideration, it appears that natural forests in the tropics are being lost at the rate of nearly 62,000 square miles (160,000 sq km) a year, an area the size of England and Wales combined, WRI says. “The extent of tropical deforestation appears to be higher in all tropical regions except Latin America,” says Emily Matthews, the report’s author. “More tropical forests were lost in the 1990s than the 1980s. FAO’s own data show that the loss of natural forests in the tropics continues to be rapid. For FAO to say that global deforestation is slowing down is misleading given the differences in the regional and subregional conditions of the world’s forests.”

The NGO is keen for the FAO’s findings to be as accurate as possible, as it is the leading forest reference for ecologists, climate change scientists, policymakers, and environmental activists. FAO claims its new 10-yearly report is its most comprehensive yet, but, WRI says, has admitted that its forest inventory information remains poor. More than half the developing country inventories used by FAO were either more than 10 years old or incomplete and some developed country inventories also suffer from major methodological inconsistencies.

To solve the continuing problem of poor data, and inconsistent reporting methods, WRI’s report suggests that FAO should focus its efforts on collecting a core set of information, and collaborate with a wider range of organisations which can offer high quality information, particularly from satellite images.

“At the beginning of the 21st century, it is clear that official data collection efforts still haven’t provided an accurate picture of the extent of the world’s forest or how fast we are losing them,” Matthews said.

WWF has recently compiled a ‘top 10’ of the world’s most vulnerable forest ecoregions and says that less than 2.5% of these are protected. The 10 ecoregions lie in the following areas: Mexico’s dry forests; highland forests of Cameroon; the Naga-Manapuri-Chin Hills ecoregion in Bangladesh, India and Myanmar; two ecoregions of the Philippines; the Gulf of Guinea mangroves in West Africa and the west of Central Africa; the East African mangroves; the mangroves of Madagascar; forests of the Western Pacific; and the forests of the South Pacific.

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