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Monday, 20 August, 2001, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
UN call to save key forests
Soybean fields from air Unep
What happens when the forest goes: Soybeans for export in Bolivia (Image courtesy of Unep)
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The United Nations says efforts to save the world's most important forests should concentrate on just 15 countries.

The UN Environment Programme (Unep) says the 15 contain more than 80% of the forests it judges need protection most.

And most of the forests face little pressure from human activities, giving conservation efforts a good chance of success.

Unep's recommendation is based on a satellite-based survey of the forests.

The survey was carried out by scientists from Unep, the US Geological Survey, the US space agency Nasa, and other partners.

It is the first global forest survey using satellite data, and provides an objective baseline for future comparisons. Previous surveys have depended largely on information provided by individual countries.

Unep's report is entitled An Assessment of the Status of the World's remaining Closed Forests, which it defines as those with at least 40% of their canopy closed.

Likely to vanish

Unep says only these forests can be considered healthy and ecologically in good working order. Many of them are home to some of the world's rarest species, including the giant panda and the mountain gorilla.

Dr Klaus Toepfer, executive director of Unep, said: "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.

Panda AP
China's pandas and their forests face pressure
"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 organisations to act on our findings and recommendations."

The countries containing the key closed-canopy forests are Russia, Canada, Brazil, the US, Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, India, Australia, and Papua-New Guinea.

Unep says 88% of the forests face negligible pressure from the numbers of people living in or near them.

In countries like India and China, population densities are affecting the forests, but Peru and Bolivia are two examples of countries that are virtually free from pressure.

More protection

The report says: "The low population densities in and around most of these 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 the forests should be based on protection, education, and alternatives to forest exploitation."

The degree of official protection given to the forests differs widely, from Venezuela, which protects 63% of its closed-canopy forests, to Russia with 2%.

Gorilla BBC
Gorillas depend on the forests' survival
The report urges governments to give the forests more protection, and to draft action plans showing how they plan to conserve them.

It also wants tougher policing, and crackdowns on smuggling and poaching of wildlife and the trees themselves.

It says the governments of rich countries should invest in the protection of the forests, and says the investment required is likely to be "modest".

Unep is to publish a strategy on global forest assessment and monitoring, and hopes to create a permanent forest monitoring system.

Unep's proposal to concentrate funds and effort on the 15 countries will alarm those who believe that forests everywhere need protection, and that the less attractive candidates will now inevitably lose support.

But in harsh conservation terms it probably makes sense to give priority to the jewels in the forest crown. If they can be safeguarded, the argument runs, there will then be more hope for the rest.

Should we care less? Add to the debate
See also:

25 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Amazon forest 'could vanish fast'
03 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia fails to tackle logging
03 Mar 01 | Media reports
China's Great Green Wall
30 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Illegal logging boom in Cambodia
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