(Press-News.org) The globe's forests have shrunk by three per cent since 1990 - an area equivalent to the size of South Africa - despite significant improvements in conservation over the past decade.
The UN's Global Forest Resources Assessment (GFRA) 2015 was released this week, revealing that while the pace of forest loss has slowed, the damage over the past 25 years has been considerable.
Total forest area has declined by three per cent between 1990 and 2015 from 4,128 million hectares to 3,999 million hectares - a loss of 129 million hectares.
Significantly, loss of natural forested area was double the global total at six per cent, while tropical forests took the hardest hit with a loss rate of ten per cent.
Forestry expert at the University of Melbourne Professor Rod Keenan has been involved with the GFRA since 2003. For the 2015 Assessment, he headed a team of academics analysing the GFRA data for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.
"These are not good stats," Professor Keenan said of the latest report.
"We really need to be increasing forest area across all domains to provide for the forest benefits and services of a growing population. So there is more work to do."
Agricultural land development, by large and small scale producers, is believed to be the main driver behind the decreases, with Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria recording the biggest losses over the past five years.
But there have also been positive signs.
While the annual rate of net forest loss in the 1990s stood at 7.3 million hectares, it has since halved to 3.3 million hectares between 2010 and 2015.
"Halving the loss is a good thing, but we need continued policy focus to ensure the trend can be sustained," Professor Keenan said.
He believes this should include regulations to stop forest conversion, funding for better forest management and incentives to increase forest area.
Brazil and Indonesia, both among the highest deforestation offenders, have significantly improved their ways - with Brazil's current net loss rate 40 per cent lower than in the 1990s.
Indonesia is also losing forested area at a rate two-thirds slower than it did between 1990 and 2000.
Professor Keenan said the study showed forest is being more rapidly lost in some of the poorest countries, including India, Vietnam and Ghana.
"In low-income countries with high forest cover, forests are being cleared for direct subsistence by individuals and families and large scale agriculture for broader economic development," he said.
"Some have policies and regulations to protect forests, but they do not have the capacity and resources to implement them."
In Australia, conservation efforts are beginning to have an impact. Australia recorded a net gain of 1.5 million hectares of forested land over the past five years, despite an overall fall from 128.5 million hectares in 1990 to 124.7 million hectares in 2015.
Much of that is attributed to natural events, such as fire and drought, as well as human land clearance for agriculture.
In 2015, total forest cover is 3,999 million hectares globally (or 31 per cent of global land)
Since 1990, there has been a loss of three per cent of total forest area, six per cent of total natural forested area and ten per cent decrease in tropical forests
Average rate of loss has halved from 7.3 million hectares in the 1990s, to 3.3 million hectares between 2010 and 2015
Decline in natural forests has been offset by 66 per cent rise in planted forest, from 168 million hectares to 278 million hectares
Loss occurring more quickly in some of the lowest-income countries
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