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World is felling trees at 'alarming' rate

Africa leads way in destructiveness, scientists say

A man sat next to a felled tree at Afi mountain forest reserve near Ikom, Nigeria. UN specialists say 60 acres of tropical forest are felled worldwide every minute, up from 50 a generation back. A man sat next to a felled tree at Afi mountain forest reserve near Ikom, Nigeria. UN specialists say 60 acres of tropical forest are felled worldwide every minute, up from 50 a generation back. (George Osodi/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Edward Harris
Associated Press / February 3, 2008

ABO EBAM, Nigeria - In the gloomy shade deep in Africa's rain forest, the noontime silence was pierced by the whine of a far-off chain saw. It was the sound of destruction, echoed from wood to wood, continent to continent, in the tropical belt that circles the globe.

From Brazil to central Africa to once-lush islands in Asia's archipelagos, human encroachment is shrinking the world's rain forests.

The alarm was sounded decades ago by environmentalists - and was little heeded. The picture, meanwhile, has changed: Africa is now a leader in destructiveness. The numbers have changed: UN specialists estimate 60 acres of tropical forest are felled worldwide every minute, up from 50 a generation back. And the fears have changed.

Scientists still warn of extinction of animal and plant life, of the loss of forest peoples' livelihoods, of soil erosion and other damage. But today they worry urgently about something else: the fateful feedback link of trees and climate.

Global warming is expected to dry up and kill off vast tracts of rain forest, and dying forests will feed global warming.

"If we lose forests, we lose the fight against climate change," declared more than 300 scientists, conservation groups, religious leaders, and others in an appeal for action at December's climate conference in Bali, Indonesia.

The burning or rotting of trees that comes with deforestation - at the hands of ranchers, farmers, timbermen - sends more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all the world's planes, trains, trucks, and automobiles.

Forest destruction accounts for about 20 percent of manmade emissions, second only to burning of fossil fuels for electricity and heat. Conversely, healthy forests absorb carbon dioxide and store carbon.

"The stakes are so dire that if we don't start turning this around in the next 10 years, the extinction crisis and the climate crisis will begin to spiral out of control," said Roman Paul Czebiniak, a forest specialist with Greenpeace International. "It's a very big deal."

The December UN session in Bali may have been a turning point, endorsing negotiations in which nations may fashion the first global financial plan for compensating developing countries for preserving their forests.

The latest data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, helped spur delegates to action.

"Deforestation continues at an alarming rate of about 13 million hectares [32 million acres] a year," the UN body said in its latest "State of the World's Forests" report.

Because northern forests remain essentially stable, that means 50,000 square miles of tropical forest are being cleared every 12 months - equivalent to one Mississippi or more than half a Britain.

The lumber and fuelwood removed in the tropics alone would fill more than 1,000 Empire State Buildings, FAO figures show.

Although South America loses slightly more acreage than Africa, the rate of loss is higher here - almost 1 percent of African forests gone each year. In 2000-2005, the continent lost 10 million acres a year, including big chunks of forest in Sudan, Zambia, and Tanzania, up from 9 million a decade earlier, the FAO reports.

Across the tropics the causes can be starkly different.

The Amazon and other South American forests are usually burned for cattle grazing or industrial-scale soybean farming.

In Nigeria's southeastern Cross Rivers State, home to one of the largest remaining tropical forests in Africa, people from surrounding villages of huts and cement-block homes go to the forest each day to work their pineapple and cocoa farms. They see no other way of earning money to feed their families.

"We breathe the air, and our bellies are empty," said Ogar Assam Effa, 54, a tree plantation director and member of the state conservation board. "Can air give you protein? Can air give you carbohydrates?" he asked. "It would be easy to convince people to stop clearing the forest if there was an alternative."

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