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Global Forest Resource Assessment 2010

by Jim Ball  (President, CFA)

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 findings include:


  • 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 since 2005.

  • 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”[1] 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 www.fao.org/forestry/fra/remotesensing/portal 


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 www.fao.org/forestry/fra and hard copies can be obtained from FAO.


[1] The definition of forest in FRA2010 is: Land spanning more than 0.5 ha with trees higher than 5 m and a canopy cover of more than 10%, or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ.  It does not include land that is predominantly under agricultural or urban land use.



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