Good News and Bad News for the World’s Tropical Forests

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Another day, another global report on the world’s land use. This time a wide-ranging survey from the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO)—an intergovernmental body that promotes the sustainable use of forest resources—has revealed that the area of the world’s tropical forests that are under some form of sustainable management has increased 50% since 2005, from 69 million hectares to 183 million hectares. That’s good. And the area of timber-production under some form of management plan—as opposed to a timber free-for-all—has increased by one-third since 2005 and now totals 131 million hectares. But at the same time, that’s a little more than a quarter of the 431 million hectares globally that are under timber production, meaning that much of the world still has virtually no forest policy whatsoever. And less than 10% of all forests are sustainably managed according to the ITTO’s fairly exhaustive numbers. From Emmanuel Ze Meka, the ITTO’s Executive Director:

We are of course happy to see the progress that has occurred in the last five years, but it still represents an incremental advance, and some countries are still lagging behind. We fully support the emergence of new markets for ‘green’ timber and the recent push to include forests in a climate change accord, but in many countries these developments alone may not be transformational.

Demand for certified wood is likely to affect only a small part of the tropical forest estate and countries are embracing forest programs related to climate change because they expect them to
generate a significant amount of money, which may not materialize to the extent hoped for.

The story differs from region to region. Some of the brightest spots for tropical forests are in the very countries that, in the 1980s and 1990s, were the poster children for rainforest destruction. Brazil, Gabon, Guyana, Malaysia and Peru have all seen improvements in forest sustainability recently—including policies that have begun to deal with the knotty questions of land tenure. (Although Brazil—for reasons that still aren’t clear—has suffered a sudden surge in deforestation over the past year.) But in many African and Southeast Asian nations—like Nigeria, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea—have experienced civil conflicts and economic problems that have made forest management a virtual impossibility. Even when better management laws are on the books, nations like Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo simply lack the ability to carry them out. From Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative for ITTO:

Today’s report shows that less than 10 percent of all forests are sustainably managed and that ITTO expects deforestation to continue. The report also shows that reforming tenure and supporting community forestry are needed to prevent the continued loss of tropical forests and the industrial clearing and logging that leads to deforestation, poverty, and human rights abuses.

While the trends are mostly positive, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay that way. The plan to avoid deforestation through REDD (Reduced Emission from forest Destruction and Degradation) has stalled in part because no climate market can match the value of native tropical forests for logging or for agriculture. If food prices stay high—as they’re expected to do—and governments of the world keep supporting biofuels—you can expect more pressure on tropical forests. The best solution might be to intensify the push for sustainably managed or verified timber in European and North American markets—a strategy that was very effective in pushing Brazilian farmers to stop clear-cutting rainforest for soy production. The forests may be in Latin America and Asia—but the pressure to solve the problem of forest loss is on the rest of us.