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World's forests declining

The world’s primary forests have declined by almost four per cent in the past ten years with the vast majority of these losses in the Tropics.

The world’s primary forests have declined by almost four per cent in the past ten years, with the vast majority of these losses in the Tropics.

However, in its latest interim report, the State of the Tropics grouping of 12 leading research institutions in 11 countries says the rate of loss in the tropics is slowing.

The report was released today at the Association for Tropical and Biology and Conservation (ATBC) and the Organisation for Tropical Studies (OTS) meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica, by Professor Liz Losos, President and CEO of OTS.

OTS is a non-profit consortium that has grown to include 63 universities and research institutions from the United States, Latin America and Australia, while the ATBC is the world’s largest scientific organisation promoting research, conservation and the wise use of tropical ecosystems, with more than 1200 members from more than 80 nations.

Dr Susan Laurance from James Cook University has been elected President of the ATBC for 2014, when the organisation’s annual conference will be held in Cairns. JCU Distinguished Professor William Laurance was president in 2006.

The full State of the Tropics Report is expected to be published later this year and will shine a light on the critical importance of the people and issues of the tropical world, and contribute to efforts to improve the lives of the peoples of the Tropics and their environment.

The 12 institutions involved are:

  • James Cook University, Australia

  • Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Brazil

  • Organisation for Tropical Studies, Costa Rica

  • Escuela Superior Politiécnica del Litorial, Ecuador

  • Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, England

  • University of the South Pacific, Fiji

  • University of Nairobi, Kenya

  • University of Papua New Guinea

  • Singapore’s National University and the Nanyang Technological University

  • Mahidol University, Thailand

  • University of Hawaii – Manoa – USA.

Professor Losos said the latest report from the group showed that human exploitation of forests has been at the expense of biodiversity and the natural regulation of ecosystem functions.

“Our tropical forest ecosystems host at least two-thirds of the Earth’s terrestrial species and provide significant local, regional and global human benefits,” she said.

Primary forests, in particular tropical moist forests, include some of the world’s most species-rich, diverse, terrestrial ecosystems. Around 7.8 million square kilometres (or 57%) of global primary forest is estimated to be in the Tropics.

The Tropics accounted for 60% of forests reserved for the conservation of biodiversity in 2010, or 2.8 million square kilometres.

Brazil accounts for 35% of primary forests globally, and 60% of primary forests in the Tropics.

Professor Losos said the report revealed that the world’s area of primary forest decreased by about 420,000 square kilometres in the ten years to 2010, reducing the total area of primary forest by 3.7%.

“The vast majority of losses in this period were in the Tropics, with South America accounting for almost 70 per cent of losses in the Tropics.

“But available data suggest the rate of loss of primary forests is slowing in the Tropics.”

Professor Sandra Harding, Vice-Chancellor of Australia’s James Cook University which initiated the State of the Tropics project, said that over the past half-century the tropics had emerged as an increasingly critical region.

More than 40% of the world’s population now lives in the Tropics and this is likely to be close to 50% by 2050. The region generates around 20% of global economic output and is home to some 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

“However, the resources to sustain larger populations and economic growth are imposing ever-increasing pressures,” she said.

Issues of concern include relatively poor health outcomes, with more than one billion people suffering from tropical diseases, unacceptable levels of infant mortality and reduced life expectancy; extreme poverty; poor educational outcomes; environmental degradation; and, in some cases, political and economic instability.

“The key objective of the State of the Tropics project is to enable a better understanding of the tropical world, the key challenges of the region as well as the opportunities it provides,” Professor Harding said.

“In Australia, we do have scientific assets, businesses, and population in the tropics that can speak to the challenges and opportunities of the tropics.

“The idea of the Tropics has geopolitical, economic and strategic importance, and this importance will be plain as a result of the full State of the Tropics Report. Sooner or later, we will have to take this seriously,” Professor Harding said.

It is intended that the State of the Tropics Report will be published every five years with an annual State of the Tropics paper focusing on a key issue.

[The paper on Primary Forests can be found at http://www.stateofthetropics.org]

Issued: June 27, 2013

JCU Media: Jim O’Brien 07 4781 4822