Saving the trees of life [Archives:2005/856/Health]

July 4 2005

By Claude Martin
and Ian Johnson

Nobody can get through the day without using a product that comes from a forest. To a greater extent than most people realize, the paper we write on, the water that comes out of our taps, the medicine that heals us, the wood that builds our houses and furniture, all originate from forests. Forests provide the fresh air we breathe and habitats for endangered species. They also provide us with recreational opportunities, increasingly important in our complex world. Approximately 1.5 billion of the world's rural poor directly depend on forests for basic needs like food and fuel-wood.

Yet deforestation continues. Every year, we lose 14.6 million hectares (56,000 square miles) of forests – an area almost four times the area of Switzerland. Irresponsible forest management, enhanced by poor governmental regulation and enforcement, and markets that reward illegal logging, are conspiring to denude the world's most valuable and threatened forests. Once forests start to disappear, a host of environmental, social, and economic ills usually follow, affecting us all in some way.

Indonesia's Sumatra Island is a good example. Pulp and paper companies are driving rampant and illegal destruction of forests that contain the richest diversity of plants in the world. It is likely that plants not yet discovered will disappear along the way, as well as such endangered species as the Sumatran rhino and elephant, as well as the orangutan. When Sumatra's forests disappear, entire communities of people will also find themselves with no proper place to live and no decent way to make a living.

Moreover, the distortion to global markets caused by trading in illegally, cheaply produced products results in disadvantages for responsible corporate citizens. Developing countries are losing $15 billion in tax revenues annually due to illegal logging. To make matters worse, the demand for wood for reconstruction following last year's tsunami is intensifying the already untenable demands being placed on Sumatra's forests.

Similar threats to forests are evident in the Amazon and Congo Basin. The recent UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) shows that forests in these and other critical regions are in serious decline due to mismanagement and will continue to disappear unless serious measures are taken. Information released by the government of Brazil indicates that deforestation of the irreplaceable forests of the Amazon, due to factors such as agricultural conversion, reached 2.6 million hectares (roughly 10,000 square miles) in the past year, bringing the total deforested area of the Amazon to 17%.

But the battle against deforestation is not lost. Diverse organizations, environmentalists, and corporations concerned with the state of world's forests are joining forces to reverse deforestation and improve forest management. For example, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Bank have helped Brazil's government kick-start an initiative that established over 17 million hectares (69,000 square miles) of new forest-protected areas such as national parks. The WWF/World Bank alliance also motivated partners to establish a trust fund to manage these protected areas in perpetuity.

Similarly, a summit among the leaders of the Congo Basin countries resulted in extraordinary cross-border cooperation on forest conservation and responsible management. This in turn led to a $53 million initiative by the United States State Department to promote Congo forest conservation. Since the leaders first met in 1999, 3.5 million hectares (more than 13,000 square miles) of new protected areas have been established in the Congo Basin.

Nevertheless, given the effects of last December's Asian tsunami, the weight of evidence provided by the MEA, and deforestation statistics from key forest regions, our efforts must continue. The World Bank and WWF recently pledged to unite in an effort to assist in reducing the rate of global deforestation by 10% by 2010, and to work with other public and private sector institutions to pursue ambitious targets on forest conservation.

WWF studies show that if the world's forests are allotted among a mix of uses and types – including protected areas, responsibly managed commercial forests, and restored forest landscapes – we can provide the world's needs for forest products while conserving important environmental and social values for the foreseeable future. Business leaders, governments, and civil society organizations must play their part in realizing this vision.

Dr. Claude Martin is Director General of WWF International and Ian Johnson is Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2005.