Deforestation slows down, bringing hope of a revival

José Graziano da Silva says evidence of the effectiveness of sound forestry practices will spur greater efforts to recover the health of our forests, on which our survival depends

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 4:31pm

Good news is being delivered this week at the World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa: the rate of net global deforestation has slowed by more than 50 per cent since 1990. In another positive development, the net loss of natural forests declined from 8.5 million hectares per year between 1990 and 2000 to 6.6 million hectares per year between 2010 and 2015.

These results have contributed to reducing total carbon emissions from forests by more than 25 per cent between 2001 and 2015.

The findings, in the Global Forest Resources Assessment, an effort led by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, are the result of the most comprehensive worldwide survey of forests ever.

The fall in deforestation comes when more wood than ever is being used, as the global population is more than a third larger now than it was in 1990. This shows that sustainable forest management works and that political will and concrete action can make a difference. Today, forest management plans cover more than half of the global forest area.

These findings provide an important foundation to build on as the international community is set to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals this month. This post-2015 development agenda will feature 17 goals that aim to end extreme poverty and hunger by 2030 and promote prosperity and harmony with nature. Among the most pressing challenges is feeding a growing global population, a challenge made greater by the threats of climate change, increasing water and land scarcity, and soil and land degradation.

We need to manage our forests better, with much greater integration with other land uses, including agriculture

We cannot meet the challenge without forests. They cover nearly one-third of the planet's land; are home to over 80 per cent of the world's terrestrial biodiversity, representing an irreplaceable genetic resource for the future development of agricultural crops; and hold about three-quarters as much carbon as the earth's entire atmosphere, thus mitigating climate change.

We are now protecting our forests better. About 13 per cent of the world's forests (more than half a billion hectares) are designated primarily for biodiversity conservation. There has also been a remarkable increase in the forest area covered by national inventories.

But much remains to be done. While in the last five years, total forest area increased by 4 million hectares in Asia, 1.9 million hectares in Europe, 1.5 million hectares in Oceania and 0.7 million hectares in North America, it fell by 14.2 million hectares in Africa and 10.1 million hectares in South America.

The assessment also confirmed that, despite considerable conservation efforts, the threat to biodiversity persists and is likely to continue. And, implementing forest management plans effectively remains a challenge in many countries.

That is why we need to use the momentum of the Sustainable Development Goals to strengthen sustainable management of forests.

Millions depend on forests to meet their food, energy and shelter needs. An estimated 2.4 billion people rely on wood fuel for cooking. Forests generate employment in rural areas, and are the basis of millions of small enterprises that improve rural livelihoods. Forests support agriculture by keeping water catchments healthy, providing habitats for pollinators and offering protection against climatic extremes.

Forests are therefore an irreplaceable part of sustainable development. We need to manage them better, with much greater integration with other land uses, including agriculture, and we need to ensure that their benefits are distributed equitably. The results we are seeing show that we can do it.

We will not succeed in reducing the impact of climate change and promoting sustainable development if we do not preserve our forests and sustainably use the many resources they offer. Committing to zero illegal deforestation would send a strong message. Together, we can make forests one of the great comeback stories of our time.

José Graziano da Silva is director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation