World’s old growth forest in peril

A new set of reports from the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch have concluded that large tranches of the world’s remaining old growth forest are in peril, due to degradation from unsustainable development practices.

The reports are based on digital information and Landsat 7 satellite mapping images of Chile, Venezuela, Indonesia, Russia, Central Africa, and North America.

“As we examined what we thought were still vast, untouched stretches of intact forests in the world, we came to the conclusion that they are fast becoming a myth,” WRI president Jonathan Lash said. “Much of the green canopy that is left is, in reality, already criss-crossed by roads, mining and logging concessions.”

Mapping of the Russian taiga, the first detailed look at this area, showed that the belief that it was mainly wilderness is wrong. The area is now fragmented, with unspoiled areas separated by logging and other types of degradation. Eastern Siberia is the most pristine area, but European Russia has just 9% of the country’s intact forest. Major threats come from industrial logging, fires and mineral development. Just 5% of forests have some form of official protection.

“The new maps and reports cover only about 50% of the world’s

forests,” a WRI spokesperson told edie. There are other areas – like the Amazon, for example – which still need to be mapped. WRI’s Global Forest Watch hopes to map the rest of the world’s forests in the next couple of years.

“The maps and studies are now public domain and we hope that businesses,

NGOs and the general public will use it in a variety of ways,” said the spokesperson. “NGOs can use it to monitor their own forests. Businesses can use it to determine the source of their wood, as IKEA is now doing, and the general public can find out who owns what timber concessions in their countries.”

North America also showed disturbing signs of human interference. Over 90% of unspoiled tracts of at least 200 square kilometres are in Alaska and Canada. The US contains just 6% of the relatively undisturbed large areas of forest, although 40% of these are either strictly or moderately protected. Unfortunately, 30% of these areas fall within the national forests that are now threatened by a review of the logging ban imposed by the Clinton administration. In Canada, just 4% of the large tracts of forest are strictly or moderately protected.

The reports also reveal that although many countries have made considerable progress in enacting legislation to protect forests, in many places this is not enforced. GRI instances Indonesia, where over 70% of its timber production comes from illegal logging, which is believed to have destroyed around ten million hectares of forest. Another major culprit is the booming pulp and paper industry, which is relying on old-growth forest for its source material instead of setting up sustainable plantations.

In Central Africa, the area covered by logging concessions amounts to half of the world’s second largest rainforest. Just 8% of the area’s forests fall within parks and reserves. In Cameroon, much of the forest area thought to be low-access was found on closer examination to have been opened up by logging roads that are now well-used by hunters tracking wildlife in previously inaccessible areas. In other areas, such as Chile, short-term Government policies encourage the clearing of ancient forests to make way for plantations. Venezuela’s logging and mining practices were both found to be threatening the country’s significant pristine forest areas.

Dirk Bryant, the founder and co-director of Global Forest Watch, said: “Much of the threats facing the remaining intact forests boil down to bad economics, bad management, and corruption. We are rapidly moving towards a world where wilderness forests are confined primarily to islands of parks and reserves, with surrounding areas managed commercially for timber and other resources. The health of the planet’s forests will depend on how well we manage and protect these remaining areas.”

Based on projections from initial assessments of world forest cover made four years ago by Global Forest Watch, which found that only one fifth of the world’s historic forest remained, the organisation estimates that 40% of the fraction that remains will have vanished within the next ten to 20 years. Bryant noted: “Our most recent studies show that we have underestimated the destruction in some countries.”

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