LONDON — Efforts to save the world's last, critically important forests should initially focus on just a handful of countries, a new report has found. A unique satellite-based survey of the planet's remaining unbroken forests, which include virgin, old-growth and naturally regenerated woodlands, has found that more than 80% are located in just 15 countries.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), one of the key organisations behind the report, believes that targeting scarce conservation funds on these 15 key countries may pay dividends in terms of environmental results.
"We have found that 80.6% of the WRCF [world's remaining closed forests] are located in 15 countries", said Ashbindu Singh, regional coordinator at UNEP's division of early warning and assessment. "These are Russia, Canada, Brazil, the United States of America, Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, India, Australia and Papua New Guinea. Four are in industrialised countries and 11 are in the developing world."
The survey also reveals that outside pressures from people and population growth on most of these remaining closed forests, such as those in Bolivia and Peru, are low. 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 concludes.
But overall, an estimated 88% of these forests are sparsely populated, giving focused and well funded conservation efforts a real chance of success, the authors said.
"The importance of healthy forests cannot be underestimated", said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP. "Forests are vital for the well being of the planet. They provide a variety of socioeconomic and ecological goods and services."
These include watershed management, with forests regulating the quantity and quality of rainwater discharging into rivers, Toepfer noted. Intact forests also help counter soil erosion and the spread of deserts, and play a vital role in reducing the impacts of climate change by soaking up carbon from the air.
"Forests also harbor some of the world's most precious and endangered wildlife, provide food and medicines for many local communities and indigenous peoples across the globe and support ecotourism, which can be economically important, especially in developing countries", added Toepfer.
Despite numerous international conferences, conventions and agreements aimed at protecting forest resources — including the Forestry Principles, drawn up during the Earth Summit in 1992, and the Convention on Biological Diversity — forests around the globe remain under increasing threat, the report finds.
The report, which the authors claim is the most comprehensive and reliable assessment ever made of global forest cover, uses satellite information to identify the extent and distribution of the world's remaining closed forests. These are defined as forests with a canopy closure of more than 40%.
Forests biologists consider such a level of canopy closure to be vital for forest to remain healthy and able to perform all their known environmental and ecological functions. 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.
The report, An Assessment of the Status of the World's Remaining Closed Forests (available at <ftp://www.na.unep.net/pub/closedforest>), argues that it is vital to act now to protect these last important forests.
"The low population densities in and around the majority of the WRCF areas offer an excellent opportunity for conservation, if appropriate steps are taken now by the national governments and the international community", the report's authors write. "The cornerstone of future policies for the protection of WRCF should be based on protection, education and alternatives to forest exploitation."
The report finds that remaining closed forests in Venezuela enjoy the highest level of official protection, with 63% in protected areas. No other country protects more than 30% of its remaining closed forests.
Among the 15 key countries identified in the report, Russia has the lowest level of protection with just 2%. Mexico came in second, protecting 3% of its forests, and China, which currently protects 3.6% of its intact forests, ranked third.
In North America, Canada protects 7.4% of its remaining forests, which cover just over 37% of its land area. In the United States, where about 25% of the country is under closed forests, just 6.7% of forested land is protected.
The finding comes as US President George W. Bush considers overturning the sweeping forest protections installed by his predecessor. The Bush administration is expected to decide within weeks whether to revamp or even discard a rule protecting remaining roadless areas of US national forests.
The UNEP report calls on governments in the key 15 countries to draft action plans detailing how they propose to conserve their remaining closed forests. The level of protected areas also need to be sharply increased, and backed by tougher policing of such sites including crackdowns on smuggling and poaching of trees and wildlife.
The report also calls for road and dam construction to be subject to "rigorous scrutiny", and recommends that conversions of forest land to other uses only be allowed after other alternatives are exhausted.
Wealthy countries should invest in the protection of the last remaining closed forests situated in poorer countries, the report notes. Debt for nature swaps, in which developing country debts are reduced by industrialised countries in return for closed forest protection, should be vigorously encouraged, the report recommends.
Later this year, UNEP plans 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.
[Abridged from Environmental News Service <news.com>.]