Asia Pacific old-growth forest decline fastest globally

The Danum Valley is one of the primary forests of Malaysia. Primary forests in the Asia Pacific are rapidly decreasing. Copyright: Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]. This image has been cropped.

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  • Primary forests in Asia Pacific now way below global average
  • While total forest area increased it was mostly planted forest with single-tree species
  • Rapid urbanisation in the region adding to forest depletion

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[MANILA] Primary forests in the Asia Pacific region are in peril, with forests unaffected by human activities now reduced to 140 million hectares or 19 per cent of the total forest area — lower than the global average of 32 per cent, according to a new UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report.
Released 18 June during an Asia Pacific Forestry conference in Songdo, South Korea, the report found that although forest area in the region has increased, with an additional 17.6 million hectares of new forests added since 1990, most of them are planted forests with single-tree species and that the increase was mainly due to China, which added more than 50 million hectares of forest areas.

“Primary forests hold 80 per cent of terrestrial biodiversity. Many of them have been gone even before we understand and study their role in the food chains”

Yurdi Yasmi, Food and Agriculture Organization

Single-tree species are vulnerable to climate change, forest fires and forest diseases and do not add to forest quality and health. Also, according to a paper released in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the carbon mitigation benefits of reducing deforestation are greater than the benefits of afforestation.
“Dense primary forests, rich in biodiversity, have been destroyed,” Yurdi Yasmi, forest policy officer at FAO’s Bangkok office, tells SciDev.Net. “Primary forests hold 80 per cent of terrestrial biodiversity. Many of them have been gone even before we understand and study their role in the food chains.” Yasmi says forests are home to many key species that are important for food, medicines, protecting watersheds, and soil quality, to name a few.
Moreover, a “development first” mindset in the region prevails, the report noted. Population growth, urbanisation and demographic shifts have, and will continue to have, significant impact on forests in Asia Pacific. A growing urban middle class will raise demand for forest products. Urban dwellers now account for 46 per cent of the region’s total population, compared with 30 per cent in 1990, according to FAO. Demand for minerals, often found on forest lands, will also grow, adding pressure on natural resources, noted the report.
“Maintaining primary forests will be the main challenge for the region especially as they are threatened by unsustainable logging, encroachment, forest fires, and conversion to other land uses, such as agriculture, roads and mining,” says Yasmi, adding that Asia Pacific’s low global ranking on primary forest cover "may decline further if we do not take action to conserve it now”.

Rodney Keenan, a professor of ecosystem and forest sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia, says that there is hope in such actions as Indonesia which has imposed a moratorium on new concessions for agriculture in primary forests and peatlands since 2011.
“However, controls on clearing in one country may mean agricultural industries moving to other countries with weaker governance or more supportive policies,” he tells SciDev.Net. “Mechanisms to reduce deforestation, therefore, need to take a regional view.”
Meanwhile, technological advances in areas such as remote sensing and data analysis are revolutionising forest management and environmental monitoring, though uptake is patchy.
Yasmi recommends that countries throughout the Asia Pacific need to adopt technologies that support forest management, enforce strict measures and punish forest crimes, and conduct awareness campaigns to educate people on the urgency of conserving the last primary forests.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.