Earth has lost two-thirds of its forests

Despite a quarter-century of intensive campaigning, the world's forests are shrinking more quickly than ever. Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent, looks at the latest attempt to sum up the destruction.

Nearly two-thirds of the earth's original forest cover which existed before civilisation took off has now disappeared, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said yesterday.

Despite Earth Summits, television documentaries and all the public awareness of deforestation, the rates at which woodlands are being logged out, burnt and turned into farmland or scrub has risen in the 1990s.

If current trends continue, then within a decade there will be virtually no natural forests left in several countries scattered around the globe. WWF gave Pakistan, Haiti, Madagascar and the Phillipines as examples.

Francis Sullivan, the world-wide conservation body's chief forest campaigner, said that would be true of the entire planet half-way through the next century unless there was a turnaround. ``In one generation we are facing the almost complete loss of natural forest.''

WWF has joined with the respected, Cambridge-based World Conservation Monitoring Centre in drawing up maps of each continent showing their original forest cover and what is left now. They admit it is impossible to be completely accurate when the rate of forest loss is accelerating and many poor countries keep poor records.

But their overall conclusion is that 81 million square kilometres existed 8,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, covering just over 60 per cent of the earth's land surface if ice-covered Greenland and Antarctica are excluded. Today that has fallen to just over 30 million square kilometres.

While attention has focused on the forest fires in South-east Asia in the past few weeks, the head of WWF's Brazilian organisation told a London press conference that the burning of forests, brush and pasture in the Amazon this year was worse than ever. The burning season lasts from July through to November.

Several airports in the region had been closed. A huge pall of smoke has been hanging over Manaus, a city in the heart of the jungle with more than a million people, and there had been an upsurge in respiratory illnesses, said Garo Batmanian. There had been a 25 per cent increase in the numbers of fires recorded by satellite.

The latest government estimate for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was 15,000 square kilometres a year, an area nearly as large as Wales - but that dates back to 1994. The Brazilian environment agency has suffered financial and technical problems in trying to record the destruction from space, with three recent changes in satellites and incomplete coverage.

Logging for timber is only part of the problem. The forests are disappearing to provide pasture, plantations and cropland - although sometimes the cleared land is only be used for a few years before its fertility collapses and scrub invades. This is what happened in Britain, which was mostly covered in forest, over the past 4,000 years.

Apart from wiping out literally millions of plant and animal species, the forest loss is altering local climates, hastening water run off and even damaging sea fisheries and reefs as silt is washed rapidly off the land. Forest burning also produces much of the extra carbon dioxide humanity is pouring into the atmosphere, threatening global warming.

The WWF wants ten per cent of each different type of forest, in each country, around the globe to be given permanent protection. Several countries, but not as yet Britain, have pledged to do this. Mr Sullivan said WWF's top priority was to get Indonesia, Russia, the US and Brazil to agree.