The UN Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) has carried out assessments of the world’s forest resources on
eleven occasions since 1946, as part of its mandate to “collect, analyse,
interpret and disseminate information” relating to the agricultural sector
(which includes forestry). They have been at 5-yearly intervals in recent
years – 1990, 1995, 2000 and 2005. The key finding of the latest Global
Forest Resources Assessment 2010 (FRA2010) were released in March this
year while the report was published to coincide with FAO’s Committee on
Forestry (COFO) in October.
It is an impressive document, presenting
information on more than 90 variables from 233 countries and areas. It
cost an estimated $US25 million over a five-year period and involved over
900 specialists including 178 national correspondents. Some of the
Global forest cover is 31%
of the land area, or 0.6 ha per head. The five most forested countries
(the Russian Federation, Brazil, Canada, the USA and China) account for
more than half the total of 4 billion ha. Ten countries have no forest,
while 54 countries have less than 10% forest cover.
The rate of forest loss,
mainly due to the conversion of tropical forests to agriculture, has
decreased slightly from 16 million ha yearly in the 1990s to around 13
million ha yearly. Brazil and Indonesia, which had the highest rate of
net forest loss in the 1990s have significantly reduced this, but
Australia, which recently suffered severe drought combined with forest
fires, has one of the highest rates of loss.
Primary forest (forest of
native species with no clear sign of human activity) accounts for 36% of
the global forest area, but has decreased by more than 40 million ha
Planted trees, which are
defined as forest cover in the Global FRA, as well as natural
colonisation of forest, has been responsible for reducing the net change
in forest area from -8.3 million ha yearly in 1990-2000 to -5.2 ha
yearly in 2000-2010.
The area of planted forest
has increased at about 5 million ha yearly between 2005-10, mainly in
Asia, and now accounts for 7% of the total forest area. Three quarters
of the planted forest is of native species.
Nearly one third (30%) of
the world’s forests are managed primarily for the production of wood and
non-wood products; 13% for legally established protected areas (national
parks, game reserves, wilderness areas etc); 12% is managed mainly for
the conservation of bio-diversity and 8% with the primary objective of
world and water conservation. The balance is not designated.
Eighty per cent of the
global forests are publicly-owned, but private ownership is increasing.
Other information is
available on forest fires, which are much under-reported; pests and
diseases, natural disasters and invasive species, all of which are
causing significant damage to forests in some countries; the
socio-economic functions of forests such as employment, and the value of
wood and non-wood removals.
Lawyers may believe that “the devil is in the
detail” but for many of us reviewing the global forest cover figures over
the past decades it may be said that “the devil is in the definition”.
Some of the loss of primary forest reported above, for example, arises
from its reclassification because there has been of selective logging or
other signs of human intervention. The definition of forest, which was
revised for the 2000-05 FRA, has remained the same, as has the concept of
planted forest, which in the 2005 assessment aggregated plantations and
enriched natural forest. Changes in definition have meant that the FRA
team have had to revise data at each assessment to make them comparable
with what has gone before, setting a trap for the unwary who may attempt
to make comparisons between surveys by using the figures from past
assessments. Finally, the all-encompassing definition of “forest”
includes planted forest as well as natural forests which themselves may be
more-or-less disturbed and may not represent a true forest ecosystem.
In 2011 a number of other studies
complementary to FRA2010 will be published, on forest degradation, trees
outside forests, the relationship between forests, poverty and
livelihoods, forest genetic resources, and on forests and forestry on
small islands. A global remote sensing survey, providing additional and
more consistent information on deforestation, afforestation and the
natural expansion of forests, will be published at the end of 2011.
Access to the imagery for the 13,689 sample areas of the remote sensing
survey is at
The next survey, FRA2015, will concentrate on
improving the quality and reliability of information, including
deforestation, forest carbon stocks, trees outside forests, the roles of
forests in the protection of soil and water resources and in the provision
of livelihoods. Such data may be used in the determination of emission
levels and in the monitoring of future trends for the implementation of
the REDD-plus scheme. Since the basis of the FRA estimates is information
provided by individual countries more effort must also be put into
capacity-building for national staff.
The results are available on-line at
hard copies can be obtained from FAO.