Destruction of old-growth forests looms over climate talks

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
December 08, 2009



Destruction of old-growth or primary forests looms large in discussions in Copenhagen over a scheme to compensate tropical countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD). Some environmental groups are pressing for conservation of old-growth forests — the most carbon-dense, and biologically-rich state of forests — to be the centerpiece of REDD, while industry and other actors are pushing for "sustainable forest management" or logging using reduced-impact techniques to be the primary focus of REDD.

Central to the issue are concerns over biodiversity. Logged forests have been shown to be biologically impoverished relative to intact forests, but only temporarily in the case of selectively logged concessions, which under favorable conditions (i.e. reduced impact logging techniques, use of forest buffers, etc) can see a recovery of 70-80 percent of their biodiversity (among conspicuous plant and animal groups) within 30 years. Of course some primary forest specialists — species that cannot tolerate disturbance — lose out, likely heading towards extinction if at least some of their habitat is not preserved at the scale needed for their survival.


While Brazil ranks at the top most years in terms of tropical deforestation, the country has dramatically reduced forest loss on an annual basis since 2005. Since 2003 Brazil has set aside 523,592 square kilometers of protected areas, accounting for 74 percent of the total land area protected worldwide during that period. Photo by Rhett Butler.

But economics also come into play. Demand for wood products continues to raise and old-growth forests are often the main source of highly-coveted hardwoods. Highly selective logging — which may only target on or two trees per hectare — can have a limited impact on forest biodiversity and carbon sequestration, while generating a source of income for loggers, whether they be members of local communities or industrial timber companies. But logging also greatly boosts the likelihood that an area of forest will eventually be cleared, usually for agriculture or timber plantations. Logging usually involves road construction, which facilitates access to once remote areas and boosts development pressure.

So the debate over the use of old-growth forests encapsulates the much broader questions with addressing climate change. How much environmental degradation do we want to avoid and how much are we willing to spend to address environmental concerns?

Primary forest loss

The following section is a quantitative look at primary forest loss.

More than seven million hectares of primary forest were lost on an annual basis between 2000 and 2005, the most recent period for which data is available from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Roughly half this loss occurred in Brazil, which is home to the largest extent of tropical forest in the world: the Amazon.

But FAO figures don't include destruction of primary forests in all countries. Notably excluded are Australia, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, and Venezuela; countries with substantial forestry industries that are logging large areas of old-growth forest (especially in the case of Australia, Canada, and Democratic Republic of Congo). These countries have not reported primary forest data since at least 1990.



Among countries that have reported primary forest cover, Brazil leads the pack, followed distantly by Indonesia, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. In terms of rate of primary forest loss, two countries lost more than half their primary forest cover between 2000 and 2005: Nigeria (55.7 percent) and Vietnam (54.5 percent). Cambodia (29.4 percent), Sri Lanka (15.2 percent), Malawi (14.9 percent), Indonesia (12.9 percent), North Korea (9.3 percent), and Nepal (9.1 percent) followed.

But while primarily forests continue to fall, plantations forests are expanding, especially in North America, Europe and China. Plantations help offset the loss of natural forests in terms of carbon sequestration and as a source for wood products [i.e. "no net forest loss"], but contribute to an overall decline in global biodiversity as single species plantations replace their biologically richer natural counterparts. While most of this conversion is occurring in the tropics, Tasmania (Australia) and the American Southeast — where old-growth forests are being razed to establish pulp, paper, and timber plantations — buck the trend.

Forest Tables
All area figures are in hectares.



Worst deforestation rate of primary forests, 2000-2005. All countries.
1Nigeria55.7%
2Viet Nam54.5%
3Cambodia29.4%
4Sri Lanka15.2%
5Malawi14.9%
6Indonesia12.9%
7North Korea9.3%
8Nepal9.1%
9Panama6.7%
10Guatemala6.4%




Highest average annual deforestation of primary forests, 2000-2005, by area. All countries
1Brazil-3,466,000
2Indonesia-1,447,800
3Russian Federation-532,200
4Mexico-395,000
5Papua New Guinea-250,200
6Peru-224,600
7United States of America-215,200
8Bolivia-135,200
9Sudan-117,807
10Nigeria-82,000




Most primary forest cover, 2005. All countries
1Brazil415,890
2Russian Federation255,470
3Canada165,424
4United States of America104,182
5Peru61,065
6Colombia53,062
7Indonesia48,702
8Mexico32,850
9Bolivia29,360
10Papua New Guinea25,211


Most primary forest cover, 2005. Tropical countries
1Brazil415,890
2Peru61,065
3Colombia53,062
4Indonesia48,702
5Mexico32,850
6Bolivia29,360
7Papua New Guinea25,211
8Suriname14,214
9Sudan13,509
10Madagascar10,347
11Guyana9,314
12French Guiana7,701
13Congo7,464
14Thailand6,451
15Ecuador4,794








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CITATION:
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (December 08, 2009).

Destruction of old-growth forests looms over climate talks.

http://news.mongabay.com/2009/1208-deforestation.html