A rapidly expanding world population is making increasing inroads into forest lands. Yet every country in the world also depends on the goods and benefits provided by forests, which in the future will have to be met from an ever decreasing area.
Forest lands are urgently needed for three purposes: for new agriculture; for the production of timber and fuelwood; and for a whole range of environmental benefits (catchment protection, the preservation of genetic resources, wildlife conservation, amenity and pleasure). Unplanned clearing and exploitation of forests continues to lead to land degradation much faster than well planned development brings land into sustainable productive use - either for agriculture or forestry. There is also the spread of desert conditions and the degradation of mountain catchments. In addition, the speed of change is bringing new preoccupations about the loss of wild species and genetic diversity.
The mismanagement of forest lands and forest resources over centuries, mainly due to the need to provide land on which to grow food, has led to a situation where the forest is now in rapid retreat. The main aspects of the situation are: serious shortages in the supply of industrial wood; the catastrophic erosion and floods accompanying the stripping of forests from mountainous land - especially in the Andes and the Himalayas; the acute shortages of fuel wood in much of the developing world; the spread of desert conditions at an alarming rate in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world; and the many environmental effects of the destruction of tropical rain forests.
Each year, 90 percent of wood extracted from native Australian forests (5 million tonnes) is turned into woodchips for paper and chipboard.
Africa's forests are being degraded by droughts, fuelwood extraction, civil wars and the refugees that result, untimely bush fires and the advance of agriculture. Over-exploitation has resulted in forests of critically low quality in many parts of the world. For example, only about 10 per cent of the remaining forests in parts of the Mekong basin are now commercially valuable (MRC/UNEP 1997) and changes in the structure and composition of large forest areas in Latin America have led to irreversible losses in biodiversity (WRI 1997).
Commercial logging by the top five producers in the Asia-Pacific region – China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Malaysia – produces more than 200 million m3 of roundwood annually (ASEAN 1997, and WRI, UNEP, UNDP and WB 1998). Forty per cent of Australia's forests have been cleared, and only about 25 per cent of the original forest estate in Australia remains relatively unaffected by clearing or harvesting (Commonwealth of Australia 1996). Many of the remaining forests in the Mekong basin countries have been logged so extensively that they are now of critically low quality. For example, only about 10 per cent of the remaining forests in the Lao People's Democratic Republic are commercially valuable (MRC/UNEP 1997a). Commercial logging in the larger Pacific Islands has been largely driven by offshore demand, particularly in Asia, and deforestation rates have recently approached 2 per cent in countries such as Samoa (Government of Western Samoa 1994).
It is no coincidence that the forests of all the countries with major crop failures in recent years due to droughts or floods – Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, the Sahel countries – had been razed to the ground and had not been replaced by woody vegetational cover.