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Sustaining forest resources to meet global targets


In some countries, including India, Brazil and Australia, forest and environmental laws are being diluted to pave way for companies to step in for mining operations, hydro projects, oil exploration, commercial cattle rearing and the oil palms.

By Salam Rajesh

The current deliberations on ecosystem restoration as is being propagated by the United Nations in the midst of global negotiations on climate change concerns, comes as a sharp contradiction to the statement that the world has lost 178 million hectares of forest since 1990, an area the size of Libya, key findings as is reported in the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 (FRA 2020).

The global forest loss assessment, however, do not come as a complete surprise given the context of mass forest depletion due to incursion in pristine landscapes harboring tropical rainforests, peatlands, savannah and grasslands by industrial units and companies exploiting commercial activities including mining, oils, lumbering and mono-cropping of invasive species.

The world has a total forest area of 4.06 billion hectares which is 31 percent of the total global land area, equivalent to 0.52 ha per person (FRA 2020:1). Forests are not distributed equally geographically, as defined by forest distribution according to climatic domains. The tropical domain has the largest proportion of the world’s forests (45 percent), followed by the boreal (27), temperate (16) and subtropical (11) domains.

It is quite interesting that while forests cover one-third of the land globally, about 54 percent of the world’s forests is in only five countries, namely, the Russian Federation (815 million ha.), Brazil (497), Canada (347), the United States of America (310) and China (220). The rest of the world accounts for 1870 million hectares of forest land.

The tropical domain which contains some of the world’s last remaining species of flora and fauna is under tremendous threat from anthropogenic activities of which the latest controversy is on the oil palm plantations. The invasive species has largely destroyed much of the tropical and sub-tropical rainforest cover in Southeast Asia and Latin America. The raging controversy on this mono-crop focuses sharply on the ecological and environmental hazards that threaten extinction of species, both floral and faunal populations.

The biodiversity sensitive zones in Andaman & Nicobar Islands, and in all of the eight States in North East India that fall under the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot zone, are under threat from oil palm extension. The Government of India had proposed a budget of INR 11,040 crore for speeding up the monoculture invasion in these two biodiversity hotspots, undermining the global call to restore ecosystems to address climate change threats.

The FAO’s report stated that the total carbon stock in forests decreased from 668 gigatonnes in 1990 to 662 gigatonnes in 2020, while carbon density increased slightly over the same period, from 159 tonnes to 163 tonnes per ha. This, of course, reflects on the assessment of forest cover loss over the decades, presumably enhanced by human activities. It is understood that most forest carbon is found in the living biomass (44 percent) and soil organic matter (45 percent), with the remainder in dead wood and litter.

Sounding the alarm bell that the world’s forest growing stock is declining, the report mentions that the world’s total growing stock of trees decreased slightly from 560 billion m3 in 1990 to 557 billion m3 in 2020, due to a net decrease in forest area. The assessment is that the total biomass has decreased slightly since 1990 but biomass per unit area has increased. The world’s forests contain about 606 gigatonnes of living biomass (above- and below-ground) and 59 gigatonnes of dead wood (FRA 2020:10).

This assessment suggests the assumption that increasing activities in forest landscapes are impacting negatively on the forest resources. In some countries, including India, Brazil and Australia, forest and environmental laws are being diluted to pave way for companies to step in for mining operations, hydro projects, oil exploration, commercial cattle rearing and the oil palms. Large scale timber lumbering projects also count for mass depletion of forests – as in tropical and temperate forest areas.

The years between 2021 and 2030 are pot-marked as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, stressing on the urgency to restore ecosystems to regenerate forests, peatlands, grasslands and savannahs, and seascapes. The focus is on the fight to address the threat of global warming and the consequential extreme weather conditions. Recurrent extreme weather phenomena – cyclonic storms, wildfires, heat waves, cold waves, droughts – had ravaged the world community increasingly in these past years.

‘Forests face many disturbances that can adversely affect their health and vitality and reduce their ability to provide a full range of goods and ecosystem services’ (FRA 2020:8). Stating that around 98 million hectares of forest were affected by fire in the year 2015, the FAO reported this was mainly in the tropical domain, where fire burned about 4 percent of the total forest area in that year.

The report further provided that more than two-thirds of the total forest area affected was in Africa and South America. Insects, diseases and severe weather events damaged about 40 million hectares of forests in 2015, mainly in the temperate and boreal domains, it added.

FAO’s Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo says, “Forests are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They are a source of food, medicines and biofuel for more than 1 billion people. They protect soils and water, host more than three quarters of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, and help tackle climate change. Forests provide many products and services that contribute to socio-economic development and create work and income for tens of millions of people”.

In its key messages to the world community, the FRA 2020 report has a warning note (p.125): ‘The global forest area continues to shrink by an average of 4.7 million ha per year. Globally, the rate of net forest loss has declined since the 1990s. Given the current global trend of a shrinking net forest area, it is unlikely that the Global Forest Goal of increasing the world’s forest area by 3 percent will be met by 2030’.

Terming halting of deforestation remains a major challenge, the report categorically states that in the most recent five-year period between 2015 and 2020, deforestation occurred at a rate of 10 million hectares per year. At this rate of reduction, the report assumes that achieving the SDG 15 target of halting deforestation will take another 25 years!

It, therefore, is reasonably argued that halting processes of deforestation entails stopping of negative activities such as extensive mining and physical modifications of forest landscapes, and commercialized activity of mono-crop extension into forest areas, such as which the global community is concerned with the oil palm cultivation. Governments need to review their stand on initiating so-said developmental projects in biodiversity sensitive areas.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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