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Some 129 million hectares of forest have been lost since 1990 - an area roughly equivalent to that of South Africa - according to FAO's most comprehensive forest survey to date, the World Forest Resources Assessment 2015 (FRA).
The findings reflect, however, that an increasing area of forest areas has been protected, while more countries are improving forest management. This is often achieved through legislation, including the measurement and monitoring of forest resources and greater involvement of local communities in development planning and policies.
The FAO report, which covers 234 countries and territories, was presented at the World Forestry Congress this week in Durban, South Africa.
"Forests play a fundamental role in fighting rural poverty, in food security and in providing people with livelihoods. And they provide vital environmental services such as clean air and water, the conservation of biodiversity and the fight against pollution. climate change, "said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva at the launch of the report in Durban.
Graziano da Silva also highlighted an "encouraging trend towards a reduction in deforestation rates and carbon emissions from forests", as well as the improvement of information that can guide adequate policies, underlining that national forest inventories currently cover 81 percent of the world's forest area, a substantial increase in the last 10 years.
"The trend towards change is positive, but we have to do better," he added. "We will not succeed in reducing the impact of climate change and promoting sustainable development if we do not conserve our forests and sustainably use the many resources they offer us ".
While in 1990 forests covered 31.6 percent of the planet's land areas - about 4,128 million hectares -, in 2015 it has risen to 30.6 percent - about 3,999 million hectares -, according to the FRA.
During this time, the net annual rate of forest loss has decreased from 0.18 percent in the 1990s to 0.08 percent during the 2010-2015 period.
Today, the majority (93 percent) of the world's forest area is natural forest: a category that includes areas of primary forest where human disturbances have been minimized, as well as areas of secondary forest that have regenerated from natural form.
Planted forest - another subcategory - currently represents 7 percent of the planet's total forest area, having increased by more than 110 million hectares since 1990.
The FAO report underscores the enormous importance of forests to people, the environment and the global economy.
The forestry sector contributes some US $ 600 billion annually to world GDP and provides employment for more than 50 million people.
The biggest losses in Africa and South America
Africa and South America experienced the highest net annual forest loss in 2010-2015, at 2.8 and 2 million hectares, respectively, but the report notes how the volume of losses has "substantially decreased" over five years. precedents.
Since 1990 most of the deforestation has taken place in tropical regions. In contrast, net forest area has increased in temperate countries, while there has been relatively little change in boreal and subtropical regions.
However, given the growth of the world population, the average per capita forest area has decreased mainly in the tropics and subtropics, but also in all other climatic regions, with the exception of the temperate one.
Better forest management
Globally, the area of natural forest is decreasing and that of planted forests is increasing. And although most forests remain publicly owned, the area owned by individuals and communities has increased. In all cases, FAO underlines the importance of sustainable forest management practices.
Natural forests - the least affected by human activity - contribute to the conservation of genotypes (the genetic makeup of organisms) and to the maintenance of the composition of natural tree species, while providing vital habitats for animal species in danger of extinction.
Forests help replenish groundwater tables crucial for drinking water supplies, agriculture, and other uses. They also protect soils against erosion, avalanches, and landslides.
Planted forests, for their part, are often developed for productive purposes and where they are well managed, they can provide various forest goods and services and help reduce pressure on natural forests.
This must also be seen in the context of increasing global wood consumption and continued widespread dependence on fuelwood.
"Forest management has improved tremendously in the last 25 years. This includes planning, knowledge sharing, legislation, policies - a whole host of important steps that countries have or are taking," said Kenneth. MacDicken, Head of the FAO Global Forest Resources Assessment Team.
MacDicken highlighted how since 1990 the designation of new forest areas for conservation has increased by about 150 million hectares and that forests in protected areas have increased by more than 200 million hectares.
Forests are rich in biological diversity, hosting more than half of the terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. The FAO warns that despite conservation efforts, the threat of biodiversity loss persists and is likely to continue with deforestation, forest degradation (reduction of the biomass density of trees by human or natural causes , such as logging, fire, demolition caused by the wind and other events) pollution and climate change, all of them with negative impacts.
Currently, the forest area destined mainly for the conservation of biodiversity represents 13 percent of the world's forests, equivalent to 524 million hectares, with the largest area in Brazil and the United States.
During the last five years, Africa has had the highest annual increases in forest area for conservation, data that in Europe, North America, Central America was lower compared to previous periods, while the increase reported in Asia for the period 2010-2015 It was less than that registered during 2000-2010, but greater than the increase in the 1990s.
Coping with climate change
Deforestation and forest degradation increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, while forests and tree growth absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. FAO argues that a more sustainable management of forests will result in the reduction of carbon emissions from them and therefore has a vital role in the face of the impact of climate change.
FAO estimates that total carbon emissions from forests decreased by more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2015, mainly due to a slowdown in deforestation rates globally.