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The World's Forests -- What's Left 1998

John Revington

"The Last Frontier Forests", a 40-page 1997 report by the New York-based NGO, the World Resources Institute (WRI), found that "almost half the Earth's original forest cover is gone, much of it destroyed within the past three decades". Highlighted here are some of the main points in the report.

"The Last Frontier Forests: Ecosystems and Economies on the Edge" can be accessed on the WRI website.

The Big Picture at a Glance

* About 8,000 years ago, before humans had a significant impact, the world's forests covered about 6 billion (6,000,000,000) hectares.

* About half of that forest remains today -- 3 billion hectares. (For comparison, Brazil has a land area of 0.84 billion hectares. The Earth has a total land area of 14.8 billion ha.).

* Of this three billion hectares, about 40% or 1.2 billion hectares, the WRI calls "frontier forest". The term "frontier forest" refers to "large, ecologically intact and relatively undisturbed natural forests" which are "likely to survive indefinitely without human assistance". (For a more precise definition, see The Last Frontier Forests) To put this another way, "just 22 per cent of the Earth's original forest remains in large, relatively natural ecosystems".

* The other sixty percent of the world's remaining forests -- about 1.8 billion hectares -- is composed of smaller fragments which for a number of reasons do not provide a safe environment for native flora and fauna.

* Of the 1.2 billion hectares of remaining frontier forest, about 40% is considered by the WRI to be "under moderate or high threat". The report adds that many frontier forests not yet under threat "remain vulnerable because they contain timber, oil or minerals".

* The picture becomes more grim when one takes into account the fact that 75% of the world's frontier forest outside boreal regions is "under moderate or high threat". .

Global Deforestation and Forest Degradation

* About 16 million hectares of forest are cut or burnt annually. It was not clear to me from the WRI paper how much of the cutting and burning takes place in frontier forests.

* For tropical forests, the figures are particularly alarming. In three decades (1960 - 1990), "450 million hectares were cleared -- a fifth of the world's tropical forest cover." And during that time, millions more hectares were degraded.

Distribution of Frontier Forests

* Over 75% of the remaining frontier forest is located in "three large tracts covering parts of seven countries":
- the boreal forest in Canada and Alaska
- the boreal forest in Russia
- the tropical forest of the northwestern Amazon Basin and Guyana shield.

* The report warns that "outside Russia and Canada, three quarters of the world's frontier forests -- including virtually all temperate forest frontiers -- are at risk".

Some other information in "Last Frontier Forests"

* The report assigns a "frontier forest index" to each country of the world, ranking them "according to the percentage of frontier forest lost and the proportion of remaining forest that is moderately or highly threatened". Only Brazil, Suriname, Canada, Colombia, Venezuela, Russia and French Guiana still have a large proportion of their original frontier forests. On the other hand, 76 countries have lost all their frontier forests.

* There are regional overviews for North America, South America, Africa, Europe and Russia, Asia and Oceania (PNG, Australia and New Zealand).


The WRI report introduces a new term -- frontier forests. By doing so, WRI emphasises the importance of large undisturbed forests and exposes a grim reality which is obscured by some statistics on global deforestation. The FAO, for example, is able to claim that forest cover in the world's developed countries increased between 1990 and 1995 by 8.8 million hectares (FAO 1997). This figure can only have been arrived at by overlooking the distinctions between plantations, secondary forests and frontier forests. There is a world of difference between frontier forests and plantations, and a failure to value one above the other will hasten the demise of native forests.

WRI' s emphasis on frontier forests should not be used to discount the importance of non-frontier forests. "These modified forests should not be forgotten" the report says. "They are the last refuge for some of the world's most endangered species and they provide important economic products and environmental services".

The WRI study found that commercial logging was "by far the greatest danger" to frontier forest in all regions of the world. In doing so, it concurs with "Bad Harvest?", the 1996 report by WWF on global deforestation and the timber trade. It provides further refutation of the timber industry's attempts to shift the blame to others. "Some of [logging's] most negative effects are indirect" says the WRI report. "Logging opens up areas to clearing for agriculture, hunting and fuelwood gathering".

The WRI report's analysis of the underlying causes of deforestation rightly points to global overconsumption as a major culprit. However, it fails to acknowledge the role of the world's rich countries in the indebtedness of poor countries. Nor is any mention made of the role of rich nations play in controlling the global marketplace. Consequently, WRI's concluding "call to action" lacks any strategies to deal with these two problems, despite the fact that they are instrumental in creating the conditions which lead to tropical deforestation

In 1990, a WRI report attempted to lay most of the blame for greenhouse gas emissions on Third World countries. The spurious accounting figures which gave rise to this extraordinary proposition were exposed by the New Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Science and Environment (Argawal and Narain 1991). It appears that there may be a reluctance on the part of WRI to acknowledge the environmental sins of rich countries.

Another disappointing aspect of the WRI report is the failure to stress the crucial role of indigenous peoples in the future of frontier forests. As the report points out, "about 50 million indigenous people live in tropical forests alone". When the rights of indigenous forest dwelling peoples are ignored, it is they who suffer most and benefit least from deforestation. On the other hand, it is the recognition of their rights and their ability to be custodians of forests that offers the greatest potential for protecting many forests.

It should be noted that "The Last Frontier Forests" was released before massive fires ravaged many of the world's tropical forests in 1998. One can only speculate about how the report would have differed, had it been able to take into account the implications of these fires.


Argawal. A. and Narain, S., 1991, Global Warming in an Unequal World: a case of environmental colonialism, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

Bryant, D., Nielsen, D., and Tangley, L., 1997, The Last Frontier Forests: Ecosystems and Economies on the Edge, World Resources Institute, Washington

FAO, 1997, State of the World's Forests, Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome

WWF, 1996, Bad Harvest? World Wide Fund for Nature (UK), London

Link here for more on deforestation rates

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