Feb 3

Forest loss across the world has slowed down, largely due to a switch from felling to planting in Asia, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) State of the World’s Forests report.  

Forested areas have increased in size in China, Vietnam, the Philippines and India, while there have also been gains in Europe and North America. But forests are being lost in Africa and Latin America due to rising demand for food and firewood. 

Photo of European larch forest from above

A net loss of forest in Asia during the period 1990-2000 has been transformed into a net gain in the decade since.

International Year of Forests 

The launch of the report coincides with the start of the UN’s International Year of Forests, which aims to raise awareness of forest conservation. The FAO is urging governments to explore ways of generating income from forests that do not depend on chopping trees down.  

The report cites that although 52,000 sq km of forest was lost per year between 2000 and 2010, this was a marked improvement on the annual figure of 83,000 sq km seen during the previous decade. Forests now cover about 40 million sq km – just less than one third of the Earth’s land surface.  

“China has increased its forest by three million hectares (30,000 sq km) per year – no country has ever done anything like this before, it’s an enormous contribution,” said Eduardo Rojas-Briales, assistant director-general of the FAO’s forestry department. 

Photo of Yunnan snub-nosed monkey male

There are concerns forests are being conserved simply because they store carbon, without taking account of their immediate benefits to wildlife and local people.

Old forests disappearing

However, the report does not distinguish between the growth of old forests and plantations, and environmental groups are warning that priority needs to be given to old forests and the biodiversity they maintain. In Asia, South America and Africa, the area covered by deliberately planted forests is increasing, which could mean that old-growth forests continue to disappear while plantations spread. 

Photo of ancient sessile oak tree covered with ferns and lichens

Old forests support greater biodiversity than plantations.

Conservation International is one of several environment groups pressing for increased attention on these areas and their special importance for nature. They are highlighting the 10 places in the world where forests of iconic importance are under threat. All of which currently cover less than 10% of their original range.  

View and download the full report.  

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author