UN agency urges countries to act as fires increasingly threaten world’s forests

400-year-old tree in Africa destroyed by a fire

9 September 2003 – With forest fires around the world burning a combined area equal to that of India in 2000 and this year being one of the worst fire seasons in recent history, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today called on countries to involve local communities in the management and protection of their forests.

“Where people have an interest in protecting their forest resources, forest fires started by people will more or less disappear," FAO Forest Fire Officer Mike Jurvelius said in a news release, noting that 95 per cent of all fires are caused by human activities, at a cost of several billion dollars every year in destruction and fire-fighting.

"This year's fire season has been one of the worst in recent history, in terms of loss of human life and damage to forests and infrastructure, which includes housing, roads, bridges and telecommunication," Mr. Jurvelius added.

The worst fire hazard area in the world is in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 170 million hectares burn annually. Only about 10 per cent of these fires are necessary for the ecosystem.

To date this year, Portugal has lost about 417,000 hectares, over three times more than the average loss during the last two decades, and France some 45 000 hectares, a 30 per cent increase compared to the same average. Russia has lost 23.7 million hectares, an area almost the size of the United Kingdom and more than double last year’s loss, while the United States lost about 2.8 million hectares, 1.1 million hectares more than in 2002.

Calling for a programme of educating people, Mr. Jurvelius said: “Countries such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland have successfully contained forest fires. For centuries, they have run awareness campaigns educating people about the functions and values of their forests. In addition, local communities and private forest owners care about their forests because their livelihoods depend on the forest resources."

He also noted that Namibia and Mozambique had increased peoples' involvement in forest management. This was accompanied by public awareness campaigns. As a result, the number of wildfires in Namibia dropped significantly.

The uncontrolled expansion of agricultural activities and tourism, as well as the increased use of forests for recreational purposes, poses a serious risk to peoples' lives and to natural resources, according to FAO.

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