A new study by the World Resources Institute of the UN Food and Agriculture's (FAO) latest assessment of the world's forests reports that deforestation may not be slowing down and may have even increased in the tropics.
"FAO's own data show that the loss of natural forests in the tropics continues to be rapid," said Emily Matthews, author of the new WRI study, Understanding the Forest Resources Assessment 2000. "For FAO to say that global deforestation is slowing down is misleading given the differences in the regional and subregional conditions of the world's forests."
Deforestation rates have increased in tropical Africa, remained constant in Central America, and declined only slightly in tropical Asia and South America. The WRI report, which was endorsed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), points out that understanding the true rate of deforestation is made more confusing because FAO's "net rate of change" measures the combined change in natural forest area and plantation area. During the 1990s, an average of 3 million hectares of new plantations were planted globally each year, and FAO counts these as offsetting natural forest loss.
If new plantations are excluded from consideration, it appears that natural forests in the tropics are being lost at the rate of nearly 16 million hectares a year. "The extent of tropical deforestation appears to be higher in all tropical regions except Latin America," says Matthews. "More tropical forests were lost in the 1990s than the 1980s."