Albion Monitor /News

Logging Main Threat to Last "Frontier Forests"

Mostly in the northern hemisphere, particularly Russia and Canada
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Logging by multinational corporations now poses the principal threat to the world's last large, undisturbed natural forests, according to a ground-breaking report released March 4 by the World Resources Institute (WRI).

These few "frontier forests," as WRI calls them, are found mostly in the northern hemisphere, particularly Russia and Canada, according to the report, 'Last Frontier Forests: Ecosystems and Economies on the Edge.'

The rest are found primarily in Northern Amazonia, which includes parts of Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia; the so-called 'Guyana Shield,' which covers parts of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana; and the Congo Basin of West Africa.

But these southern forests are more threatened by logging, mining, energy exploration and the influx of settlers than the northern boreal forests of Canada and Russia where the climate, poor soil conditions, and other factors make them less hospitable to large-scale commercial logging. Mining operations are also more difficult, according to the report.

Frontier forests must be sufficiently large and intact to provide a safe haven for all of their indigenous species
The report, based on the work of 90 of the world's top forest specialists, was issued to help launch a five-year 'Forest Frontiers Initiative' to promote the conservation and careful management of these woodlands.

WRI is urging countries to maintain their frontier forests as protected parks or reserves. The agency says countries should develop sustainable land-use practices in surrounding forests which could serve as a buffer or they should establish protected areas within the larger forests which are linked by corridors that also remain untouched. Sustainable forest-use practices could then be introduced into the rest of the frontier area.

WRI estimates that only one-fifth of the world's original forests still qualify as frontier forests. These forests covered about half of the earth's total land mass just as agriculture was being developed about 8,000 years ago.

To qualify as frontier forests, they must be sufficiently large and intact to provide a safe haven for all of their indigenous species and to survive indefinitely without human intervention.

Of 123 countries covered by the study, 76 -- including all of Europe, North Africa, southern Africa, the Middle East, and mainland East Asia -- have virtually no virgin forests left. Another 11 nations, including Nigeria, Sweden, Vietnam and Laos, have less than five percent of their original forests.

Another 28 countries -- including the United States, most of Central America, India, the southern Andes, parts of West Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia -- still have substantial amounts of original forest but little time to protect them given current trends, the study says.

That leaves only eight countries -- Brazil, Canada, Colombia, French Guiana, Guyana, Russia, Suriname, and Venezuela -- which still have a "great opportunity" to conserve their forests.

Some 70 percent of the world's remaining frontier forest are found in just three countries: Russia, Canada, and Brazil. And half of this forest is found in the far north where logging costs are more expensive, according to the report.

Outside of these largely inhospitable northern boreal forests, 75 percent of the remaining frontier forest is threatened and may well be "significantly degraded" by logging and other human interventions over the next five to 10 years, the report says.

The most threatened territory includes all of Europe's remaining frontier forests, 87 percent of those found in Central America, and 75 percent of the original forests that are left in Africa and the South Pacific, especially Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea.

Logging, mostly by multinational corporations, affects more than 70 percent of the threatened frontier forests
In perhaps its most significant finding, the new study takes issue with recent reports by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation which blamed much of the threat to frontier forests on the encroachment of peasants who practice "slash-and-burn" agriculture.

"Logging and related activities are a much more significant threat than had previously been thought," according to Nigel Sizer, a WRI scientist who worked on the report.

Logging, mostly by multinational corporations, affects more than 70 percent of the threatened frontier forests, according to the report, which blames intensified interests by foreign private investors in forest-rich countries, notably Brazil, Suriname, Guyana, Bolivia, Gabon, Cameroon, Cambodia, and Burma for much of the devastation.

Large-scale logging brings with it new roads, which opens forests to fuelwood gathering, agriculture and other destructive practices, the report says.

While forests in southern countries are being logged at increasing rates, logging in the wealthier northern countries remains a potent threat. More than 80 percent of frontier forests in Europe, North America and Russia are under assault by logging interests, according to the report.

Temperate forests in these regions have already been devastated. Only three percent of the original frontier forests remain standing. "The temperate forests are the most critically endangered today," says Dirk Bryant, another WRI analyst.

But logging is not the only threat. Mining and energy development -- especially the building of hydroelectric dams and the exploration and transport of oil and gas -- also tends to bring new roads, settlements, and pollution to pristine forests. Energy development alone affects close to 40 percent of frontier forests considered to be under moderate or high threat.

Clearing for agriculture, which, by comparison, affects only about 20 percent of threatened frontier forests, is worst in Asia and Central and South America, according to the report.

Commercial hunting can also degrade vulnerable forests, it says. For example, hunting for certain kinds of game may disrupt the way seeds are disseminated around the forest or permit plant- eating animals to proliferate, wreaking havoc on a habitat's ecological balance.

Poaching to meeting urban demand for bush-meat now threatens about a third of Africa's most vulnerable frontier forests, almost all of which are found in the Congo Basin, especially in Zaire, Congo, and Gabon.

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Albion Monitor March 10, 1997 (

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