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World's Forests in Decline

Many of the world's forests are in rapid decline and could be lost much sooner than expected, according to a new report released by the World Resources Institute, a Washington-base environmental research organization. The study is based on maps produced by Global Forest Watch, an advocacy group affiliated with the institute.

The report covers half the world's forests, with detailed maps of North America, Russia, Indonesia, Central Africa, Chile and Venezuela. The maps, which combine digital satellite images with ground-based data, show illegal logging, mining and development activities in areas thought to be untouched wilderness, says Dirk Bryant, president of Global Forest Watch. "Russia is one example, the biggest forested country on the planet [with] some of the most remote forests on earth," Mr. Bryant pointed out. "We found in detailed mapping only one-quarter of the forests in Russia today remain intact. They have been significantly disturbed through logging, human-set fires, etc."

Dirk Bryant says Global Forest Watch uncovered similar problems in other large forested areas. "Everywhere that we're looking at taking a close look we're finding that there is significantly less than we had first estimated in some rough-scale mapping we did a couple of years ago," he said. "Part of this is due to rapid change in forests. In Indonesia areas that we mapped out as being intact, primary and old growth have disappeared during the last five years."

The World Resources Institute's new forest survey says 70 percent of the timber in Indonesia has been illegally logged. In Central Africa, the survey reports logging concessions cover more than half of the world's second-largest tropical rainforest, while in Venezuela, logging and mining practices threaten one of the most pristine forests on earth.

Dirk Bryant of Global Forest Watch says many countries choose short-term economic gain over long-term environmental stewardship in managing their forests. "The good news is that countries are waking up to the problem," he said. "In the last few years, there have been major efforts made to pass new laws and legislation to better protect forests. The bad news is that these laws simply are not implemented. They are paper laws. Illegal logging is rampant in many regions of the world. Many of the logging companies in Central Africa and elsewhere operate without even a basis management plan. It is the minimum you need to manage the forests sustainably. It is," he added, "very much a cut-and-run operation that is moving through these last unaccessed areas, cutting them and moving on instead of practicing sustainable long-term management of the resources which benefit local communities and governments."

Mr. Bryant explains that the new Global Forest Watch maps show where forests are in good shape and where they are threatened. "Surprising this just isn't done internationally," he said. "Most monitoring focuses on looking at loss of forest cover. We try to look at the pressures on forests so that you have time to do something about [the problems] before it is too late."

I asked him what can be done about these problems?

"It depends on where you are," he replied, "but for the United States, I think that the role we play as consumers is key. We're one of the biggest consuming nations on earth. We buy wood from all over. We often do not know if it is legal or not. Companies are beginning to make commitments to sell wood products that come from well-managed forests and to avoid those that are destructively logged or illegally harvested. Patronizing those kinds of businesses makes a significant difference particularly in an era of globalization."

As for residents of other countries, "we are starting to see the emergence of civil society groups there's been a trend toward democratization in many countries. By uncovering the business practices that are happening, the deals that are being made we empower local activist groups with ... the satellite image, the map.

"These reports are base-line maps for what's going on, who is engaged. We hope they will be used in industry in northern countries [and by] activists groups in places like Venezuela and Chile to try to improve management and business practices," said Mr. Bryant.