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Forest Area Statistics Don’t Tell Everything

Credits: : Jim Carle (2009)
Mangrove nursery for protective afforestation, in the Hainan Province of southern China.

03 May 2010

At the regional level in Asia, the FRA 2010 reports a net loss of forest area in the 1990s has been turned into a net gain during 2000-2010, primarily due to large-scale forest planting programmes in China. If you exclude China and its large plantation programme from the statistics, the positive news is that the rate of forest loss in the region is slowing down. However, many Asian countries continue to have high rates of deforestation and, if you leave China out, it is still the case that about 33 million hectares of forest were lost in the region during the period 1990-2010.

Forest degradation, which is a key concern in this region, is not captured in the forest area statistics. Although FRA 2010 contains some information on forest health, there are no data on the rate of forest degradation or the area of degraded forests. Forest degradation is unfortunately hard to measure and there are no agreed criteria or assessment methodology. Growing stock per hectare could give an indication about the state of the forest health, including post harvesting or other human interventions and is a reasonable proxy for carbon stocks, but few countries have sufficient data to generate reliable trends over time. Also the planted forests are not the same as natural forests. While forest area is increasing due to the plantation programs in several countries, indigenous forests continue to be lost or degraded in many countries.

What does this all mean for the UN-REDD programme?
Deforestation and forest degradation continue at an alarming rate in many Asian countries. The fact that China is undertaking large planting programmes will help meet its future needs for wood and will contribute to soil and water conservation in the country, but this does not compensate for the unacceptable loss of forests and forest degradation elsewhere in the region. The reduction in the rate of loss of forests in Indonesia in recent years and the afforestation and reforestation efforts of other countries like India and Vietnam are positive signs, but have still only partial impact in the bigger picture. The FRA 2010 figures highlight the need for multi-purpose forest monitoring and assessment to strengthen national capacities to further implement policies aimed at achieving sustainable forest management (SFM) and reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD) in the region.

The forestry sector has traditionally been a relatively small contributor to the national GDP of Asian countries, which has caused the importance of the forest sector to be underestimated. This has resulted in limited resource allocation to the sector. The UNFCCC discussions and elaboration of the REDD+ programmes have lifted the profile of the forestry sector and thrust it onto centre stage, and the potential of forests to become a source of significant financial income has been recognized by governments. This will hopefully boost not just efforts to protect forest, but also efforts to develop the forestry sector as whole. Maybe finally concepts like sustainable forest management (monitoring and assessment, silviculture, fire management, forest health, low impact logging) will get the attention they deserve by policy and decision makers.

The concept of monitoring, managing and marketing carbon, in addition to the multiple benefits of forests (social, cultural, environmental and economic) will require a review of policies, programmes and management practices and significant capacity building in the countries. The UN-REDD programme is supporting countries in these efforts and many governments in the region have taken notice. , as evidenced by the increasing number of countries wanting to join the UN-REDD Programme. There is little doubt that much work remains to be done in Asia to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the UN-REDD Programme can be instrumental in helping to achieve this goal.

Petteri Vuorinen is FAO UN-REDD Programme Regional Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific