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Wednesday, 27 December, 2000, 00:14 GMT
'Growing' fire threat to tropical forests
forest fire
Tropical rain forests are increasingly at risk from fire
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Conservationists say fire is an increasing risk to many forests which have previously been largely unaffected.

Researchers from the World Resources Institute say new Nasa satellite data show that fires are having a greater effect on moist tropical forests, which have burned little in the past.

Things are changing rapidly on the ground, and we're not keeping up with it

Lead author Emily Matthews, WRI
This is partly because of El Nino, the periodic Pacific Ocean climate phenomenon which can cause widespread disruption. But clearance and burning by farmers, ranchers and commercial plantation owners also play a significant role.

The WRI, based in Washington DC, US, reveals the change in a report called Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Forest Ecosystems.

While fires occur naturally, it notes that those started by humans now account for most wildland fires in forests and savannahs.

Quality not quantity

The WRI report says the area of forest in developed countries continues to increase slightly and the good news is that production of all wood fibre products, from logs to pulp, is keeping up with demand.

There is "an encouraging trend toward more environmentally and socially responsible forestry practices", it says.

The report's lead author, Emily Matthews, said: "We are not running out of trees, especially in the developed countries. We are, however, running through our old-growth or primary forests."

The report says the "bad news" is that almost 80% of wood production comes from virgin, primary forests, or from secondary-growth ones - forests which have been logged but have regrown.

But the WRI is concerned at least as much with the quality of the world's forests as with their extent. The WRI says its report is the first attempt to analyse the condition of forests on the basis of their ability to provide a wide range of goods and services.

Quality not quantity

These include not simply tangible products like timber, fuel, food and medicinal products, but also services such as water purification, carbon dioxide storage, and a habitat for wild creatures.

Emily Matthews told BBC News Online: "It isn't much use having millions of acres of forest if it's just standing trunks of timber. We talk about forests when sometimes they are very scattered.

tree logging
Almost four-fifths of wood production comes from virgin or regrown forests
"There are millions of hectares which are mapped as forest, but when you get down on the ground you find that 60% of it is farmland. Things are changing rapidly on the ground, and we're not keeping up with it."

The WRI says there are drawbacks with commercial forestry - trees in plantations tend to be younger, smaller and more uniform in species composition.

"Vegetation under tree canopies is simpler or thinner", the report says, "and as a result the rich variety of birds, insects, mammals, plants and fungi that typically thrive in natural forests is reduced."

Economic incentives

But it accepts that plantations will be increasingly important in meeting demand for wood products. It says this will not necessarily decrease the extent of logging in natural forests without policy changes.

"If the current economic incentive structure is not changed," the authors say, "we will continue to establish plantations and harvest from forests."

They recommend that governments should "aggressively switch policies to encourage production from plantations and intensive forest management in selected areas, and to discourage old-growth harvesting".

They say many governments still subsidise logging, but not plantations. They are also concerned at the damage being done to forests by agriculture and road building.

Emily Matthews said: "There is good evidence that many large species, such as elephants in Africa and jaguars in South America, are disturbed by roads, and try to avoid them.

"Even much smaller species can be inhibited in their breeding patterns, or cut off from vital food sources."

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