The world's cloud forests are under increasing threat of destruction, and their disappearance could have a devastating effect on millions in the developing world, according to a new report.
The report, entitled Cloud Forest Agenda, is being presented today by the Mountain Cloud Forest Initiative at the opening session of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. According to its authors, the report represents the first accurate mapping of the extent and importance of cloud forests.
"This report gives us, for the first time, maps of cloud forest distribution, regional overviews of the threats they face and an agenda for priority actions," says Mark Collins, director of United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) which collaborated on the report with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
The researchers found that cloud forest coverage had previously been overestimated and in fact amounts to less than 2.5 per cent of the world's tropical rainforest, equivalent to just under 400,000 square kilometres. Furthermore, the majority of cloud forests are found in Asia, rather than Latin America as originally thought.
As well as offering a unique habitat that is home to some species that are not found anywhere else, many of the forests are of crucial economic importance to millions of people, mainly as a source of fresh water. Constantly wrapped in a mist, the trees retain moisture and provide an abundant supply of clean water year-round. Many farmers and rural communities depend on this, as well as inhabitants of fast-growing cities. For example, it is estimated that 40 per cent of water used in the capital city of Honduras comes from the cloud forests of La Tigra National Park.
"Often it is the poorest communities – among them indigenous peoples – who depend on the resources of these forests. Destroying them means taking away one of their fundamental lifelines," says Achim Steiner, director general of IUCN.
The forests are under threat of clearance from agriculture, logging and construction. But their unique ecology and location on mountain slopes also makes them particularly sensitive to climate change. It is predicted that changes in temperature and rainfall will drive some forests into extinction and force others to spread to higher altitudes. Scientists are also concerned that a reduction in the amount of cloud at lower altitudes will cause drying out of the cloud forests.
The report's authors call for improved monitoring and conservation of cloud forests, including regeneration where necessary. They also highlight the need for local and national organisations to take a leading role as 'cloud forest champions'.