United Nations

This site is maintained by UNEP/GRID-Geneva
Last Update:
We would appreciate
your feedback



Forest Loss

Forests actively contribute to the world’s environmental stability and are used as economic resources to produce subsistence and industrial forest products. In addition, they have cultural and recreational value. They perform multiple roles, such as preventing soil degradation and erosion, protecting watersheds or stabilizing mountainous areas. They limit the greenhouse effect contributing to global warming, by absorbing CO2 (the main greenhouse gas). Inversely, forest degradation increases CO2 emissions. According to some experts, forests serve as natural habitats to almost two thirds of all Earth’s species, therefore acting as a stronghold to safeguard biodiversity. On an economic level, forests may be used as a direct source of energy or raw materials. Finally, forests play a cultural role in almost all societies, as mythical sceneries or historical backgrounds and as living habitats for about 60 million people worldwide (indigenous and non-indigenous) (GFW).

Data from FAO, 1997

Despite the importance of forests, reports continue to indicate huge forests losses (FAO, 1997). Almost half of the planet’s original forest has been destroyed, mostly during the last three decades (WRI/WCMC/WWF, 1997). Between 1990 and 1995, the net forest loss equaled 33 football fields per minute (112 600 square kilometers annually) (FAO, 1999, reported by GFW). During the 1990s, the total loss of existing
natural forests was 16.1 million hectares per year, of which 15.2 million hectares occurred in the tropics (FAO, 2001). Expressed in another way, during the 1990s the world lost 4.2 percent of its natural forests, but it gained 1.8 percent through reforestation (with plantations), afforestation, and the natural expansion of forests, resulting in a net reduction of 2.4 percent over the ten-year period. Thus the net global change in forest area between 1990 and 2000 was estimated as -9.4 million hectares per year: the sum of -14.6 million hectares of deforestation and 5.2 million hectares of gain in forest cover. The global change (-0.22 percent per year) represents an area about the size of Portugal. The estimated net loss of forests for the 1990s as a whole was 94 million hectares – an area larger than Venezuela. The total estimated global forest area in 2000 was nearly 3.9 billion hectares, of which 95 percent was natural forest and 5 percent was forest plantations (FAO, 2001). About 47 percent of the world’s forests occur in the tropical zone, 9 percent in the subtropics, 11 percent in the temperate zone and 33 percent in the boreal zone.

There are reports from many countries of unsustainable forestry practices (ADB, 1995; Dourojeanni, 1994; Bose, 1995; National Institute for Space Research, 1995; Cushman, 1996; The Economist, 3 February 1996).  The majority of the remaining forests are small, disturbed and unable to sustain themselves. However, 40% of the total forest area today can still be found as large, relatively intact and undisturbed natural forests, referred to as frontier forests (WRI/WCMC/WWF, 1997). These play an essential role in maintaining biodiversity, especially protecting indigenous species, as well as in fighting the greenhouse effect. Unfortunately, these areas are under increasing threat as a consequence of growing economies, increasing consumption, and populations with demands for new land. In addition, they suffer from bad economic policies (governments encouraging logging rather than ecotourism, for instance), shortsighted political decisions (such as providing immediate jobs), poverty, corruption and illegal trade. Some specialists encourage governments to stop further frontier forests destruction immediately, to improve management of protected areas and to monitor forest quality (WRI/WCMC/WWF, 1997).   Proper forest management "provides an opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere by avoiding deforestation, and to increase carbon uptake from the atmosphere into the terrestrial biosphere through afforestation, reforestation and improved forest, cropland and range-land management activities" (Watson et al., 2000).

Data from FAO, 1997
Frontier Forests 
40% of the forests on Earth qualify as frontier forests 
70% of the world’s remaining frontier forests are in Russia, Canada and Brazil. 
39% of Earth’s remaining frontier forest is threatened by logging, agricultural clearing and other human activities. 
Only   3% of the frontier forests are in temperate regions (temperate forests are the most endangered and principally found in developed countries). 
50% of today’s frontier forest lies in boreal regions in inhospitable northern zones. 
75% of the frontier forests outside the boreal regions are threatened. 
76 countries assessed in the study have lost all their frontier forests. 
11 countries are on the verge of losing their frontier forest (e.g.: Nigeria, Finland, Vietnam, Laos, Guatemala, Cote d'Ivoire...). 
Data from WRI/WCMC/WWF, 1997

 Data from WRI/WCMC/WWF, 1997

Although the total forest area is slowly increasing in developed countries, forest quality is deteriorating, especially in Europe where forests suffer from a combination of air pollution, extreme weather, drought and infestations. In Central and Eastern Europe, 100 000 hectares of forests were lost in the last 20 years from forest damage (FAO, 1997). Canada has overestimated timber growth by about 40% in some provinces, leading to the desperate situation of harvesting rates approaching twice the replanting rates (Nilsson, 1999).

 In developing countries, forests suffer mainly from overharvesting of fuelwood and overgrazing, although fires, pests and diseases are also critical factors of forest degradation (WRI/WCMC/WWF, 1997). Conservationists in Southeast Asia have been advised to concentrate on protecting forest areas not yet under deforestation pressure, instead of working to protect hotspot areas, where pressures are too great to be resisted (Pearce, 1998). The island of Sumatra (Indonesia) is the worst deforestation hotspot. Although this island is about the size of England, 25 years have been sufficient to destroy all lowland forests with their native faunas. 60,257 square km of Brazilian forest, an area about twice the size of Belgium, was destroyed only between 1995-1997 (INPE, 1998). In 1997, the World Wide Fund for Nature singled out Brazil as the nation with the biggest annual rate of forest loss (WWF, 1997).

Data from FAO, 1997

Tropical forests, primarily located in developing countries, are disappearing at the rate of about 21 to 50 football fields per minute (70 000 to 170 000 square kilometer annually) (GFW). Their destruction correlates with the recent economic and population growth undergone by developing countries. Growing needs for space and resources pressure natural forests into being exploited. But the impact of their gradual disappearance may be far more dramatic than for boreal and temperate forests, principally located in developed countries. Indeed, boreal and temperate forests have regenerated since the last glacial period. They are therefore not only adapted to rapidly regenerate between glaciation eras, but they also contain less biodiversity than tropical forests. In contrast, tropical forests may be far slower in regenerating and their loss would mean the loss of far more plant and animal species. This underlies the present political debate where developed countries have tried to prevent developing countries from exploiting their forest resources, despite the need of poor local populations to survive. Such conflict can only be resolved through the implementation of forest management programmes on a planetary scale, allowing some developing countries to safeguard their natural forests through some system of global trade management and compensation.

Data from FAO, 1997

On the positive side, the total forest plantation area is increasing worldwide (FAO, 1997). The overall area of forest plantations increased by an average of 3.1 million hectares per year during the 1990s, including the 1.5 million hectares converted from natural forest and 1.6 million hectares of afforestation on land previously under non-forest land use (FAO, 2001).These plantations consist of one or a few species, chosen for their fast growth, yield of commercial products and ease of management. Forest plantations have almost doubled between 1980 and 1995, in both developed and developing countries, to reach the size of 160-180 million hectares in 1995. Most developing countries have planned to double such areas between 1995 and 2010. This expansion is expected to be associated with quality changes in forest management programs, tree breeding and tree improvement, resulting in productivity gains (FAO, 1999). In 2000 forest plantations were estimated to cover 187 million hectares , of which 62 percent were in Asia. Globally, the estimated annual rate of successful new planting is about 3 million hectares, with Asia and South America accounting for 89 percent. Globally, half the forest plantation estate is for industrial end-use (FAO, 2001). Plantation forests may potentially reduce levels of logging in natural forests, but they also threaten to replace them. The regularly spaced trees of the same age and species in plantation forests offer less resistance to environmental threats, as seen in the damage caused in France by the storms of December 1999. Planting mixed tree species may offer a solution to this problem. Tree diversification decreases the risks of disease and pest outbreaks and fire damage. It improves soil nutrient cycling, increases habitat diversity for native plant and animal species as well as increasing market security (FAO, 1999). Economic and population growth, as well as increasing requirements of land for plantation forests, are generating growing pressures on natural forests. The encouragement of small-scale outgrowers (FAO, 1999), along with better exploitation of the urban and agricultural landscape (planting trees along roads, between fields, etc.), may provide an interesting solution to the problem of space for forest production. Although forest plantations accounted for only 5 percent of global forest cover in 2000, it is estimated that they supplied about 35 percent of global roundwood. This figure is expected to increase to 44 percent by 2020. In some countries forest plantation production already contributes most of the industrial wood supply (FAO, 2001).

Increased involvement of people in forests through community-based management programs has in many cases proven to benefit the environment (soil erosion, water supply and biological diversity), while allowing local populations access to forest resources. "There is a clear link between degraded forests and poverty. We estimated that one billion of the world's poorest people in about 30 heavily deforested countries would be alleviated from poverty if given government support for managing neighboring public forest land and sharing the benefits within their communities" (Salim, 1999).  In some parts of Africa, increasing populations have actually increased their tree cover and fuel-wood supplies through planted farm forests and mixing trees, food crops and domestic animals (Holmgren, Peter, et al., 1994).

New studies indicate that links between population density/growth and land conversion
are weak and an oversimplification of the situation. Other factors such as the development of the overall economy, urbanization, policies, legislation, culture and tradition may explain a relatively large proportion of the variation in the rate of forest area change among countries (FAO, 2001).

A UNEP, USG and NASA satellite-based survey of the planet's remaining closed forests (UNEP, 2001), which include virgin, old growth and naturally-regenerated woodlands, has found that over 80 per cent are located in just 15 countries. Importantly, the survey also reveals that the pressure from people and population growth on most of these remaining closed forests, such as those in Bolivia and Peru, is low. Others, such as the remaining closed forests in India and China, are under more pressure from human activity and may require a bigger effort to conserve and protect. But overall an estimated 88 per cent of these vital forests are sparsely populated, which give well-focused and well-funded conservation efforts a real chance of success. The World Remaining Closed Forests (WRCF) are defined as forests with a canopy closure of more than 40 per cent. Such a level of canopy closure is considered vital if the forest is to be considered healthy and able to perform all its known environmental and ecological functions effectively. Such forests are also home to some of the world's rarest and most unique species including the elusive cloud leopard of Russia and the lion-tailed macaque of the Western Ghats in India. The UNEP report argues that it is vital to act now to protect these last important forests: "The low population densities in and around the majority of the WRCF areas offer an excellent opportunity for conservation, if appropriate steps are taken now by the national governments and the international community. The cornerstone of future policies for the protection of WRCF should be based on protection, education and alternatives to forest exploitation".


ADB. 1995. Asian Development Bank report on forest policy, cited in "Asian forest destruction targeted by aid bank." Reuter, 6 March 1995.

Bose, Kunal. 1995. "The shrinking forests of India". Financial Times, 6 September 1995.

Cushman, John H., Jr. 1996. "Siberian logging sets off U.S. battle". New York Times, 30 January 1996.

Dourojeanni, Marc. 1994. (Inter-American Development Bank) Quoted in "Official says forest destruction alarming". Reuter, 2 May 1994.

The Economist, 1996b. "Forest fire", 3 February 1996.

FAO. 1997. State of the World’s Forests, 1997. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 1997. http://www.fao.org/forestry

FAO. 1999. State of the World’s Forests, 1999. Third edition. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 1999. http://www.fao.org/forestry/FO/SOFO/SOFO99/sofo99-e.stm

FAO. 2001. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2001. http://www.fao.org/forestry/fo/fra/index.jsp

Global Forest Watch. www.globalforestwatch.org.
Frequently asked questions: http://www.globalforestwatch.org/english/faqs.html

About Canada: http://www.globalforestwatch.org/canada/en_index.html

About Brazil: http://www.globalforestwatch.org/brazil/en_index.html

About Indonesia: http://www.globalforestwatch.org/indonesia/en_index.html

Holmgren, Peter, et al.  1994. Ambio 23(7). Cited in Pearce, Fred. "Trees are on the march?" New Scientist, 24/31 December 1994, p. 17.

INPE. 1998. Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE). Reported by J. Craig . "Ravaging of Brazil's Amazon continues - survey".  REUTERS, 26 January 1998 (see also http://www.inpe.br).

National Institute for Space Research (Brazil). 1995. Quoted in Schemo, Diana Jean. "Amazon is burning again, as furiously as ever". New York Times, 12 October 1995.

Nilsson, S., Colberg, R.,   Hagler, R., Woodbridge, P. (1999). How Sustainable Are North American Wood Supplies? The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria. http://www.iiasa.ac.at/Research/FOR/papers/naws/index.htm

Pearce, F. 1998. Beyond hope. New Scientist, 1998 Oct. 31.

Pearce, F. 1999. Chainsaw massacre. New Scientist, 1999 Feb. 6.

Salim, E. 1999.  (co-chairman of the Commission and former Indonesian Minister of Population and Environment). World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development (1999). http://iisd1.iisd.ca/wcfsd/default.htm.

TREES. 1998. Tropical Ecosystem Environment Observation by Satellite (TREES) project. Oct. 1998.

UNEP. 2001. A. Singh, H. Shi, Z. Zhu and T. Foresman. An Assessment of the Status of the World's Remaining Closed Forests. UNEP/DEWA/TR 01-2. Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA). United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). P.O. Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya. Available from http://www.na.unep.net/reports.php3

Watson, R.T., Noble, I.R., Bolin, B., Ranindranath, N.H., Verardo, D.J., Dokken, D.J. 2000. Land use, land-use change and forestry. Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, UK. http://www.ipcc.ch/pub/reports.htm.

WRI/WCMC/WWF. 1997. Bryant, D., Nielson, D., Tangley, L. (1997). The last frontier forests: ecosystems and economies on the edge.World Resources Institute, Forest Frontiers Initiative, in cooperation with the World Conservation Monitoring Center and the World Wide Fund for Nature.  http://www.wri.org/wri

WWF. 1997.  "Two-Thirds of The World's Forests Lost Forever". Press Release  8 October 1997. Forests for Life Campaign web site. http://www.panda.org/forests4life/news/081097_lostfor.cfm


World Conservation Monitoring Center. http://www.wcmc.org.uk/forest/data/cdrom2/stat1.htm

World Resources Institute: Forest Frontier Initiative. http://www.igc.org/wri/ffi/maps/


Emerging Issues

Forest Loss
Forest Fires

© UNEP/DEWA/Earthwatch 1996-2003