45% of the world’s forest surface disappeared during the 20th century. The 4 billion hectares of the planet’s forests are threatened by deforestation, particularly in tropical regions. Yet they are essential for planetary balance. Protecting them is a priority.

Deforestation and forest degradation. Nature reserve “Biocultural del Puuc”, Yucatán, Mexico. ® Bénédicte Desrus/AFD

Deforestation, an imminent danger

Since 1990, deforestation has destroyed about 13 million hectares of forests per year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), equal to the size of England. Urbanization, transportation infrastructure and logging are partly to blame for the destruction of forest cover, but in 80% of cases, deforestation results from the increase of agricultural land – intensive soy or oil palm plantations, for example.

Worse still, the forests most afflicted by deforestation are primary and tropical forests, those where there is no visible trace of human activity and which shelter between 50 and 80% of plant and animal species. Mainly located in equatorial and tropical countries, these old-growth forests represented 36% of the world’s forests in 2005 and are disappearing. For French biologist Francis Hallé, the speed with which these marvels have gone is horrendous.They are in particular danger in three large areas: the Amazon, Central Africa and Southeast Asia.

 

Climate role of deforestation

The consequences of deforestation are alarming. Firstly, biodiversity suffers: an incalculable number of animal and plant species disappear with the hectares of primary forest lost each year. The consequences are also social and human since the lives of 1.6 billion people directly depend on forests.

 

 

But the repercussions are mainly climatic. Forests produce nearly 40% of the atmosphere’s oxygen and are indispensable carbon sinks. One hectare of forest stocks about 15 tons of CO2 equivalent per year. When a tree is cut down, not only does it no longer produce oxygen, but the carbon stored within it is released as well. Nearly 20% of greenhouse gases are thus directly linked to deforestation, an amount higher than that of worldwide transport-related emissions. The fight against deforestation makes up about a third of the efforts to limit global climate warming to two degrees Celsius in the coming years. For WWF France, “if we lost the forests, we would not only lose a significant number of animal and plant species, but also our fight against global warming.

 

Reprieve for forests

Despite being a worrying reality, there are reasons for hope on the forest-saving front. First, even if it is a slow movement, deforestation seems to have decreased in recent years. Partly because since 1990 more than a score of countries, including China, have improved their food security while preserving their forest cover. This is what the FAO stresses in its latest report on forests: “Food security can be achieved through agricultural intensification and other measures such as social protection, rather than through expansion of agricultural areas at the expense of forests

In addition, the fight against deforestation is clearly on the international community’s radar. The protection of forests and their sustainable management have been included in the sustainable development objective (SDG) on biodiversity since 2015. In Europe, States have set precise objectives to support sustainable production and avoid excesses (notably in the case of palm oil) and finish with imported deforestation by 2020. This is a subject taken very seriously by France, which would like to develop a national strategy on the subject, based on the initiative of Ecological and Inclusive Transition minister Nicolas Hulot. The outline of this new strategy will be unveiled in July2018.

While there are reasons for hope, the emergency remains. As Inra (French research center in agronomy) director Jean-Luc Dupouey says, replanting trees won’t bring extinct species back” and “one unlogged forest […] stores more carbon than the logged forests which are younger, less dense and poorer in organic matter.

 

 

 

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