The world's forest area could begin to expand again within just a few years, a top UN expert said, as the United Nations launched an international year of forests.
Trees are still cut down at an "alarmingly high" rate, particularly in the Amazon and Africa, according to the latest global study from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the UN agency which oversees agriculture and forestry.
But China has launched a massive reforestation programme boosting Asia's total and the forest area has grown in Europe and North America over the past decade, said the FAO's "State of the World's Forests" report.
The estimated 4.032 billion hectares (40320 m²) of forests in 2010 is down from an estimated 4.085 billion in 2000, said the FAO. But the speed at which trees are being cut down is slowing, from 8.3 million hectares a year in 1990-2000 to 5.2 million in the past decade.
"There are evident signs that we could arrive at a balance in a few years," said Eduardo Rojas-Briales, FAO assistant director general, adding that the deforestation rate was 50 million hectares a year 30 years ago.
"Of course we will still lose very valuable forest and we will gain many junk forests with not so much carbon storage value."
Many years of effort
Rojas-Briales said it would take "many years of effort" to turn the corner and even if the forested area starts growing again it would not soak up the same amount of greenhouse gases as the forests lost in recent decades.
China is taking its forested area from 120 million hectares to 200 million, said the UN official, who also praised efforts by South Korea and India.
Overall, Asia's forest area has increased from 90.5 million hectares in 2000 to 119.8 million in 2010, said the report.
Forest area falling
South America's forest area has fallen from 904 million hectares to 864 million in the past decade. Rojas-Briales said Latin America remains a problem because it has not used its economic growth of recent years to help forests.
"In East Asia they are putting resources and policies into position, in Latin America we don't see this," said the FAO official.
He added however that there were preliminary signs of a "significant" reduction in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon over the past two years.
Africa's forest land has fallen from 20 million hectares in 2000 to 19.5 million at the end of the decade, said the FAO report. Europe's total has risen from 998 million hectares to just over one billion over the past decade.
The launch of the International Year of Forests was carried out by top UN environment officials and Wangaari Maathai, the Kenyan who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her campaigning in defence of trees.
In a related move, Colombia became the first country to sign the Nagoya Protocol on access to genetic resources, including from forests. The protocol was agreed by more than 100 countries in October last year. (Sapa/ January 2011)
Huge parts of world are drying up