Fifteen Countries Hold Key to Saving World's Forests

LONDON, England, August 20, 2001 (ENS) - Efforts to save the world's last, critically important forests, should initially focus on just a handful of countries, a new report has found. A unique satellite based survey of the planet's remaining unbroken forests, which include virgin, old growth and naturally regenerated woodlands, has found that more than 80 percent are located in just 15 countries.


More than 80 percent of the world's remaining closed canopy forests, like this one in Australia, are located in just 15 countries, the new report finds (Photo courtesy Western Australia Department of Conservation and Land Management)
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), one of the key organizations behind the report, believes that targeting scarce conservation funds on these 15 key countries may pay dividends in terms of environmental results.

"We have found that 80.6 per cent of the WRCF [world's remaining closed forests] are located in 15 countries," said Ashbindu Singh, regional coordinator at UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment. "These are Russia, Canada, Brazil, the United States of America, Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, India Australia and Papua New Guinea. Four are in industrialized countries and 11 are in the developing world."

The survey also reveals that outside pressures from people and population growth on most of these remaining closed forests, such as those in Bolivia and Peru, are low. Others, such as the remaining closed forests in India and China, are under more pressure from human activity and may require a bigger effort to conserve and protect, the report concludes.

But overall, an estimated 88 percent of these forests are sparsely populated, giving focused and well funded conservation efforts a real chance of success, the authors said.


Illegal logging threatens many of the world's remaining forests (Photo courtesy World Wildlife Fund)
The findings have come from UNEP scientists working with researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA).

"The importance of healthy forests cannot be underestimated," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP. "Forests are vital for the well being of the planet. They provide a variety of socioeconomic and ecological goods and services."

These include watershed management, with forests regulating the quantity and quality of rainwater discharging into rivers, Toepfer noted. Intact forests also help counter soil erosion and the spread of deserts, and play a vital role in reducing the impacts of climate change by soaking up carbon from the air.

"Forests also harbor some of the world's most precious and endangered wildlife, provide food and medicines for many local communities and indigenous peoples across the globe and support ecotourism, which can be economically important, especially in developing countries," added Toepfer.


Bolivia's forests are under little pressure from human populations (Photo courtesy
Despite numerous international conferences, conventions and agreements aimed at protecting forest resources - including the Forestry Principles, drawn up during the Earth Summit in 1992, and the Convention on Biological Diversity - forests around the globe remain under increasing threat, the report finds.

"Short of a miraculous transformation in the attitude of people and governments, the Earth's remaining closed canopy forests and their associated biodiversity are destined to disappear in the coming decades," Toepfer warned. "Knowing it is unlikely that all forests can be protected, it would be better to focus conservation priorities on those target areas that have the best prospects for continued existence. I believe this new study provides this new focus. I urge governments, communities and international organizations to act on our findings and recommendations."

The report, which the authors claim is the most comprehensive and reliable assessment ever made of global forest cover, uses satellite information to identify the extent and distribution of the world's remaining closed forests. These are defined as forests with a canopy closure of more than 40 percent.

Forests biologists consider such a level of canopy closure to be vital for forest to remain healthy and able to perform all their known environmental and ecological functions. Such forests are also home to some of the world's rarest and most unique species including the elusive cloud leopard of Russia and the lion tailed macaque of the Western Ghats in India.

About 88 percent of the closed forests in the key 15 countries contain low to nonexistent human populations, but population pressures are high in India and China.


In Russia, where almost 40 percent of the nation is covered by intact forests like the Komi Forest, just two percent of forest lands have national protection (Photo courtesy Greenpeace/Rodionov)
In India, 43 percent of closed forests have high population densities, and in China, 36 percent are facing high population densities. In contrast, almost all closed forest areas in Peru and Bolivia are free from high population pressure.

Other countries free from high population pressures, and containing significant closed forests, include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Russia and Canada.

The report, "An Assessment of the Status of the World's Remaining Closed Forests," argues that it is vital to act now to protect these last important forests.

"The low population densities in and around the majority of the WRCF areas offer an excellent opportunity for conservation, if appropriate steps are taken now by the national governments and the international community," the report authors write. "The cornerstone of future policies for the protection of WRCF should be based on protection, education and alternatives to forest exploitation."


In Mexico, which protects about three percent of its intact forests, the 2,739 acre El Chico National Park was established in 1898 to protect the area from deforestation (Photo courtesy Ministry of Tourism Mexico)
The report finds that remaining closed forests in Venezuela enjoy the highest level of official protection, with 63 percent in protected areas. No other country protects more than 30 percent of its remaining closed forests.

Among the 15 key countries identified in the report, Russia has the lowest level of protection with just two percent. Mexico came in second, protecting three percent of its forests, and China, which currently protects 3.6 percent of its intact forests, ranked third.

In North America, Canada protects 7.4 percent of its remaining forests, which cover just over 37 percent of its land area. In the United States, where about 25 percent of the nation is under closed forests, just 6.7 percent of forested land is protected.

The finding comes as U.S. President George W. Bush considers overturning the sweeping forest protections installed by his predecessor. The Bush administration is expected to decide within weeks whether to revamp or even discard a rule protecting remaining roadless areas of U.S. national forests.

The UNEP report calls on governments in the key 15 countries to draft action plans detailing how they propose to conserve their remaining closed forests. The level of protected areas also need to be sharply increased, and backed by tougher policing of such sites including crackdowns on smuggling and poaching of trees and wildlife.


Giant pandas find shelter in the forests of China (Photo courtesy
The report also calls for road and dam construction to be subject to "rigorous scrutiny," and recommends that conversions of forest land to other uses only be allowed after other alternatives are exhausted.

Wealthy countries should invest in the protection of the last remaining closed forests situated in poorer countries, the report notes. Debt for nature swaps, in which developing country debts are reduced by industrialized countries in return for closed forest protection, should be vigorously encouraged, the report recommends.

Fifty-three other countries have more than 30 percent of their land cover under closed forests, the report found. Some of those, particularly those with low population densities, could eventually be the focus of vigorous conservation efforts, if the forests of the first 15 cornerstone countries are secured.

Candidates for this second wave of action might include Gabon and the Republic of the Congo in Africa; Belize in Central America and French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname in South America.

UNEP, for its part, is working through its recently launched Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), as one way of helping the world's remaining closed forests. UNEP plans to establish conservation projects in forests across Africa and Indonesia to help save the gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo and orangutan.

The projects focus on issues such as ecotourism and forest protection, supporting staff in national parks, educating local people about the importance of great apes and encouraging alternatives to exploiting the animals for food.


This eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graurei) is dependent on intact forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Photo courtesy IUCN-World Conservation Union)
Later this year, UNEP plans to publish a Strategy on Global Forest Assessment and Monitoring which will outline other actions the organization will be taking in support of forest conservation. These will include developing its monitoring and assessment of closed forests in partnership with governments, space agencies, non-governmental organizations and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

The strategy is also likely to lead to a new assessment of the impacts of population growth, economic expansion and climate change on forests, and by implication, human beings.

The full report, "An Assessment of the Status of the World's Remaining Closed Forests," is available at: