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International Effort To Save Forests Should Target 15 Countries

London/Nairobi, 20 August 2001 - Efforts to save the world's last, critically important forests, should initially focus on just a handful of countries, a new report has found. A unique satellite-based survey of the planet's remaining closed forests, which include virgin, old growth and naturally-regenerated woodlands, has found that over 80 per cent are located in just 15 countries.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), one of the key organizations behind the report, believes that targeting scarce conservation funds on these 15 key countries may pay dividends in terms of environmental results.

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, the report concludes.

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 findings have come from scientists with UNEP working with other researchers including ones from the United States Geological Survey and NASA, the United States space agency.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, says:" The importance of healthy forests cannot be underestimated. Forests are vital for the well being of the planet. They provide a variety of socio-economic and ecological goods and services. These include watershed management, with forests regulating the quantity and quality of rainwater discharging into rivers. They also help counter soil erosion and the spread of deserts.

"They play a vital role in reducing the impacts of climate change by soaking up carbon from the air. Forests also harbour some of the world's most precious and endangered wildlife, provide food and medicines for many local communities and indigenous peoples across the globe and support eco-tourism, which can be economically important, especially in developing countries," he adds.

But despite their important role and numerous international conferences, conventions and agreements including the Forestry Principles, drawn up during the Earth Summit in 1992, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, forests around the globe remain under increasing threat.

"Short of a miraculous transformation in the attitude of people and governments, the Earth's remaining closed-canopy forests and their associated biodiversity are destined to disappear in the coming decades. Knowing it is unlikely that all forests can be protected, it would be better to focus conservation priorities on those target areas that have the best prospects for continued existence. I believe this new study provides this new focus. I urge governments, communities and international organizations to act on our findings and recommendations," he says.

The report, which the authors claim is the most comprehensive and reliable assessment ever made of global forest cover, has used satellite-based information to identify the extent and distribution of the World's Remaining Closed Forests (WRCF).

These 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.

Ashbindu Singh, Regional Coordinator at UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assesment, says: "We have found that 80.6 per cent of the WRCF are located in 15 countries. These are Russia, Canada, Brazil, the United States of America, Democractic Republic of the Congo, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, India, Australia and Papua New Guinea. Four are in industrialized countries and 11 are in the developing world".

Population pressures, one of the key threats to the world's remaining forests, vary between the countries. But overall 88 per cent of the world's remaining closed forests in these key 15 countries have low if non-existent population densities.

Mr Singh says high population pressures in closed forests areas can be seen in India and China. In India, 43 per cent of closed forests have high population densities. In China 36 per cent are facing high population densities whereas almost all closed forest areas in Peru and Bolivia are free from high population pressure.

Other countries free from high population pressures and with significant closed forests include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Russia and Canada.

The report, An Assessment of the Status of the World's Remaining Closed Forests(see For More Information on details of how to download the 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".

It shows that remaining closed forests in Venezuela enjoy the highest level of official protection with 63 per cent in protected areas. This is followed by Bolivia, 30 per cent; Colombia, 25 per cent and Indonesia, 20 per cent.

Among the 15 key countries identified in the report, Russia has the lowest level of protection with just two per cent protected followed by Mexico, three per cent; China, 3.6 per cent, the United States, 6.7 per cent and Canada, 7.4 per cent.

The report has also found that 53 countries have more than 30 per cent of their land cover under closed forests. Some of those, especially ones with low population densities, could also eventually be the focus of vigorous conservation efforts after the forests of the first 15 countries have been made secure.

Candidates for this second wave of action might include Gabon and the Republic of the Congo in Africa; Belize in Central America and French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname in South America.

The report calls on governments in the key 15 countries concerned to draft action plans detailing how they propose to conserve their remaining closed forests. The level of protected areas also need to be sharply increased backed by tougher policing of such sites alongside crackdowns on smuggling and poaching of trees and wildlife.

Better communications for and training of park staff are needed as well as tighter national conservation laws.

The report also calls for road and dam construction to be subject to "rigorous scrutiny" and the conversion of forest land to be allowed only after exhausting other alternatives.

Wealthy countries should invest in the protection of the last remaining closed forests situated in poorer countries. The investment required is likely to be modest.

Debt-for-Nature Swaps, in which developing country debts are reduced by industrialized countries in return for closed forest protection, should be vigorously encouraged, the report says.

UNEP, for its part, is working through its recently launched Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), as one way of helping the world's remaining closed forests. UNEP is to establish conservation projects in forests across Africa and Indonesia to help save the Gorilla, Chimpanzee, Bonobo and Orangutan.

The projects focus on issues such as ecotourism and forest protection, supporting staff in national parks, educating local people about the importance of great apes and encouraging alternatives to exploiting the animals for food.

UNEP is also soon to publish a Strategy on Global Forest Assessment and Monitoring which will outline other actions the organization will be taking in support of forest conservation. These will include developing its monitoring and assessment of closed forests in partnership with governments, space agencies, non-governmental organizations and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. It hopes to create a permanent forest monitoring system.

The strategy is also likely to lead to a new assessment of the impacts of population growth, economic expansion and climate change on forests, and by implication, human beings.

Notes To Editors:
The survey estimates that among the world's key 15 countries there are 2.3 billion hectares or just over 30 per cent of their land area under closed forests.

Russia has 669.6 million hectares of closed forests or nearly 40 per cent of its land area.

Canada has 368.6 million hectares of closed forests or just over 37 per cent of its land area.

Brazil has 361.5 million hectares of closed forests or just over 42 per cent of its land area.

The United States has 236.6 million hectares or just over 25 per cent of its land area under closed forests.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) has 116.2 million hectares of closed forests or over 49 per cent of its land cover.

China has 111.5 million hectares or nearly 12 per cent of its land area under closed forests.

Indonesia has 92.7 million hectares or over 49 per cent of its land cover under closed forests.

Mexico has 60.1 million hectares or over 30 per cent of its land cover under closed forests.

Peru has 59.3 million hectares or over 45 per cent of its land cover under closed forests.


Examples of rare and/or indigenous species found in these forests:

Asia and Europe: Tiger including the Siberian and tigers found in Bangladesh; the Giant Panda and Red Panda which live in the mountainous areas of countries like China at altitudes of 2,200 to 4,850 metres; the Indian chital or spotted deer; the Chinese Golden Monkey; the Cloud Leopard in Russia; the Lion-Tailed Macaque which is unique to the Western Ghats of India; the Asian Elephant of the Western Ghats and Sir Lanka; the Orangutan of Indonesia.

Africa: The Lowland and Mountain Gorrillas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the Chimpanzee of Equatorial Africa including the Cote Dívoire; Milin-Edward's Lemur, in Madagascar; the Forest Elephant of Africa; the Kirk's Red Colobus Monkey which is unique to Zanzibar; the Pygmy Hippopotamus.

North, Central and South America: The Spectacled Bear, the only bear found in South America and unique to the Andes; the Horned Guan of Mesoamerica's Mexico and Guatemala; the Muriqui, which is the largest and most threatened primate in the world, found in the Atlantic forests of Brazil; the Puma, found across the Americas.

For More Information
Please Contact: Nick Nuttall, Media Officer UNEP, on Tel: 254 2 623084 (when in London on August 20 telephone UNIC 44 20 7630 2713), Mobile: 254 733 632755, E-Mail: or Tore Brevik, Spokesman/Director, Communications and Public Information in Nairobi, on Tel: 254 2 623292, Fax: 254 2 623927, E-Mail:

The full report, An Assessment of the Status of the World's Remaining Closed Forests, can be downloaded from

The report's authors are Ashbindu Singh, Regional Coordinator, Division of Early Warning and Assesment - North America, USGS/EROS Data Center, Sioux Falls; Hua Shi, Visiting Scientist from Chinese Academy of Sciences, UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls, USGS/EROS Data Center; Zhiliang Zhu, Research Physical Scientist, USGS/EROS Data center; Timothy Foresman, Director, UNEP Division of Early Warning and Assessment, Nairobi.


UNEP News Release 01/93

Monday 20 Aug 2001
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