Food demand is eating into tropical forests

Jun 08, 2011 12:00 AM

by Gerard Wynn

Slowing deforestation and greater awareness of the value of standing trees may come too late to save the world's biggest rainforests, according to a global assessment of tropical forests.
Tropical forests are threatened by pressures to clear land to produce food and biofuels and to plant fast-growing trees for timber, wood fuel and paper.

Awareness was growing in tropical countries of consumer demands, especially in western countries, for wood harvested sustainably, but perhaps not fast enough to counter growing world demand for food, said Duncan Poore, co-author of the report and former head of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
"There's been an extraordinary change of attitude and culture. They may not be practicing it, or able to because of a lack of funds, but they know it's there," said Poore.

But he was not optimistic for the fate of the biggest areas of rainforest in Brazil, Indonesia and central Africa.
"The fundamental point is that conserving forests is not as lucrative as converting to other uses. When you consider the increase in consumption in China, India it's a very alarming prospect," he said, referring to demand to convert forests to farms for food and biofuels. The global area of permanent, natural tropical forests, either protected or harvested for indigenous tree species, was likely to continue to fall in the medium term, said the report, "Status of tropical forest management 2011."

The report was published by the international agency for monitoring and promoting sustainable management, the Japan-based International Tropical Timber Organization. It expressed concerns about weak law enforcement, inadequate funds for forest protection, poor data on forest management and uncertain forest tenure rights.
The total area of permanent, natural tropical forest in 2010 was 761 mm hectares, of which 403 mm hectares was managed, for example to harvest indigenous tree species for timber, and 358 mm hectares protected. The area managed using sustainable practices had increased slightly, it said, to about 53 mm hectares from 36 mm hectares in 2010 compared with 2005.

A sharp fall in the protected area over that period in particular in Brazil and India was likely mostly because of accounting changes, it said. Deforestation rates generally from 2005-2010 were below 1 %, it found, but much higher in particular countries and especially in Togo and Nigeria.
That supported a report by the UN's food agency, which found the rate of destruction of the world's three largest forests fell 25 % this decade compared with the previous one, but remained alarmingly high in some countries.

In the long-run, a proposed system of payments to tropical countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) may place a higher value on standing trees compared with chopping them down, the report said.
But that proposal has become bogged down in UN climate talks locked in wrangling over sharing greenhouse gas emissions cuts between industrialized and emerging economies.

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