Despite the alarming conclusions of the UN's latest State of the World's Forests, the mainstream media has devoted surprisingly little attention to the report. Snowed under by other news developments as it may have been, global deforestation is by no means insignificant. It's taking place at shocking rates, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)'s bi-annual report reveals.
Despite people's awareness that forests are key to the survival of the planet and the human race, deforestation rates are ever increasing. The expansion of large palm oil and soy plantations has been the main reason why forests are disappearing and the world's biodiversity resources are shrinking.
The potential for large-scale commercial production of cellulosic biofuel will have unprecedented impacts on the forest sector," the report indicates.
Illegal logging is also a real headache. Around 20% of the world's forests are being illegally chopped down, a trend at its worst in Africa. The continent has lost around four million hectares of forests annually between 2000 and 2005, representing one-third of all global deforestation. Given the fact that Africa only hosts 16% of the world's forests, this is a devastating rate. And growth in Europe's need for wood (for use as biomass, among others) will likely stimulate the practice.
The numbers for Asia and the Pacific, although seemingly positive, also tell stories of reduced biodiversity resources. The continent's 2005 total forest size of 734 million hectares was bigger than its 2000 level but the increase was mainly due to China's reforestation plantations. Natural forests are still being logged, only the practice is invisible!
All Latin American countries showed deterioration during 2000-2005 except Uruguay and Chile, because of plantation programs similar to those in China.
The global financial crisis won't make matters any better either in the short term. The FAO says that forests run the risk to be negatively impacted by the global economic crisis because of reduced demand for wood and wood products which in turn leads to investment in forest-based industries and, by dint of investor rationale, forest management.
A general concern is that some governments may dilute previously ambitious green goals or defer key policy decisions related to climate change mitigation and adaptation as they focus on reversing the economic downturn," the report reveals.
Friends of the Earth International and the Global Forest Coalition, two activist organizations, reacted to the report by calling on world governments to take immediate action to halt the spread of biofuel plantations in former forests, recognize the rights of indigenous peoples, ban illegal logging and related trade, implement immediate deforestation moratoria, and support forest management and restoration schemes. These are all items which Poznan failed to settle.
Isaac Rojas, who heads up the Forest and Biodiversity Program of Friends of the Earth International believes that plantations in rainforests destroy the lands and livelihoods of local communities and indigenous peoples, biodiversity and water resources. A big factor in all this is that plantations are monocultures and do not store nearly as much carbon than the forests they replace.
Global Forest Coalition said that monoculture tree plantations, something the FAO itself promotes, are also a major cause of rural depopulation and a further shifting agricultural frontiers.
They are causing the destruction of forests elsewhere," said Simone Lovera, managing coordinator of the Global Forest Coalition.
The report's longer term economic angle is less negative because it predicts that jobs in the forestry sector will grow. Investment in sustainable forest management has the potential to create 10 million new green jobs.
The dual challenges of economic turmoil and climate change are bringing the management of forests to the forefront of global interest," observes the FAO.
The U.S, for instance is including forestry in its economic stimulus package. Specific areas where jobs will be created are singled out as forest management and agro-forestry, jobs to improve management of forest fires, development and management of tracking trails, and the creation and maintenance of recreation sites.
It might take a lot longer before we see similar stimulus packages in the Third World. At the moment, around one billion people around the globe are working in forestry jobs related to averting climate change. Forests are estimated to host 70% of the world's biodiversity resources.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, countries which are host to rainforests have not been given any incentives to abandon clearing forests. The practice of clearing rain forests is a big contributor to carbon emissions, contributing around 20% of global CO2 output. This could change if these emissions are included in a future climate protocol but chances are very slim in the wake of the GOP14 talks in Poznan.
If carbon trading takes off, deforestation might even get worse because of the demand for bioenergy. It makes clearing forests for agricultural land more profitable. It will be very difficult to get people in the Third World who run lucrative palm oil plantations to change their mind on this issue. One hectare of a palm oil plantation yields nearly 6,000 liters of crude oil. At a price of USD54 per barrel (2007 figures), this is competitive with oil.
The amount of palm oil that actually ends up in biodiesel production is still small but as profitability is so attractive, farmers in Amazon and Congo basins need real incentives to abandon plans to also start palm oil farming.
In addition to a price on the carbon emissions from deforestation, other and stronger protection measures will still be needed," said Martin Persson, a Swedish researcher and expert in rainforests recently.
Persson carried out this study which shows that clearing tropical forests for palm oil plantations will remain highly profitable even when faced with a price on the carbon emissions arising from deforestation.