A forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where management plans have grown to now cover 20 million hectares of forests, despite the increasingly rate of forest area loss in Africa. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

4.06 billion remaining hectares, and other new numbers on forests… But what do they mean?

Putting the new U.N. report on global forests into context

The world has 4.06 billion remaining hectares of forests, according to the recently released key findings of the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020. Of this area, only about 1.11 billion hectares are primary forests, or native forests that remain largely undisturbed by humans.

The full report, addressing topics covered in this article, along with specific country and territory reports, will be released in the coming months.

While the world is still losing its forests – an estimated 420 million hectares have been lost to deforestation since 1990. Yet the report also found that the rate of net forest loss has significantly slowed, from an annual average of 7.8 million hectares during the decade of 1990 to 2000 to 4.7 million hectares annually from 2010 to 2020.

The assessment is the U.N.’s most authoritative report on the state of the world’s forests and has been released by the global body’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) intermittently since the mid-20th century.

It seeks to be objectively informative, presenting the latest data in a bid to “encourage the global community to increase efforts to conserve and sustainably use and manage forests, including through continued reduction of deforestation rates, strengthened restoration efforts, increased area and improved representativeness of protected areas, as well as clarification of land tenure rights,” says Anssi Pekkarinen, a senior forestry officer at FAO who coordinated the assessment.

A teak plantation plot in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
A teak plantation plot in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

Here are the amounts of forest area change stated in the key findings:

  • 3.9 million hectares: Africa’s annual rate of net forest area loss during the past decade (2010 to 2020), the highest of any continent. The continent’s rate of loss has been steadily increasing since 1990.
  • 2.6 million hectares: South America’s annual rate of net forest area loss during the same decade. This rate of loss, however, has declined to nearly half of what it was in the decade prior (2000 to 2010).
  • 1.2 million hectares: Asia’s annual rate of net forest area gain during the past decade, the highest of any continent, but a decrease from the annual rate of 2.4 million hectares during the decade prior.
  • 0.4 million hectares: Oceania’s annual rate of forest area gain during the past decade, up from a rate of 0.2 million in loss in the decade prior.
  • 0.3 million hectares: Europe’s annual rate of forest area gain during the past decade, down from 1.2 million in gain in the decade prior.
  • 0.1 million hectares: North and Central America’s annual rate of forest area loss during the past decade, down from 0.2 million in gain in the decade prior.

But what do these numbers mean? While the assessment is a lesson in not missing the forest for the trees, experts from the forestry research community highlight the importance of keeping a watchful eye on the latter too.

“The details are not available by regions, only the ‘net forest loss’ is… This net is mixing apples (intact natural forests) with oranges (regrowth and secondary forests) and bananas (plantations),” says Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research.

While 54 percent of the world’s forests are held by the five largest countries by landmass – Russia, Brazil, Canada, the U.S. and China, respective to each’s forest area – according to the report, Nasi adds that measurements of countries’ relative percentage of forest cover is perhaps more noteworthy.

An aerial view of the Amazon rainforest in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, taken in 2011. Neil Palmer, CIAT
An aerial view of the Amazon rainforest in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, taken in 2011. Neil Palmer, CIAT

“Then you have a totally different picture: Suriname, Micronesia, Gabon, Seychelles, Palau, American Samoa, Guyana, Laos, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea… rather small and with low populations in the humid tropics,” he says.

The Global Forest Resources Assessment is reported by a network of U.N.-nominated national correspondents in 236 countries and territories. National forest inventories, remote sensing, scientific studies and expert estimates inform the data that the correspondents submit to FAO.

The assessments have had substantial effects on international policymaking over the years. Their warnings about population growth’s pressures on forests during the 1960s resulted in deforestation rising to the top of concerns addressed in the first major U.N. climate conference, held in Stockholm in 1972; in recent years, findings have informed estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from land-use and land-use change, feeding into the headline-making Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and other climate change models.

“Information on the global state of forests drives policy and resource debate at global, regional and national levels,” says Pekkarinen. “Global reporting over time also helps identify knowledge gaps and highlights where improved information on forest resources is needed.”

Tom Crowther, founder of the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich, which focuses on addressing climate change through restoring landscapes, notes the importance of taking stock of biodiversity within the assessment’s swaths of numbers. For instance, plantation forests now cover 131 million hectares according to the report, accounting for 45 percent of all planted forests and 3 percent of forests globally; yet plantations are often monoculture to maximize productivity, he says, and therefore less likely than other forest types to “yield the intended benefits for biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, human water security and others.”

“The main indicator used for this report is forest extent in terms of hectares,” says the Crowther Lab’s impact officer Simeon Max. “The report does not say anything about the quality of these forests. In order to give a holistic view on the state of global forests, also their structure and health status should be considered.”

Oil palm plantations, left, slowly overtake the landscape in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Ricky Martin, CIFOR
Oil palm plantations, left, slowly overtake the landscape in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Ricky Martin, CIFOR

Improved remote sensing technology is helping to give a closer vantage point. Satellites and drones increasingly have the capacity to give more detailed assessments of forests, down to gains and losses of individual trees. Many governments use these technologies to collect their data, and to that end, the U.N. has also been conducting a remote-sensing assessment of forests that will be released next year.

“The latest technology could eventually enable us to monitor the disappearance even of individual trees, anywhere on the planet. However, we’re not there yet, and it might not be useful to get there, because that’s a huge amount of data and probably not necessary,” says Tim Christophersen, coordinator of U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and a senior official at UN Environment (UNEP). “But what we need to do, and what remote sensing helps with, is to verify the government data.”

Ownership of forests remains a fundamental issue to minimizing their risks. The report found that 22 percent of forests are privately owned, a substantial increase since 1990, but land tenure issues are far from being resolved. For 5 percent of all forests, official claim – public or private – is still foggy, and often areas that are under ownership, public or private, are still contentious in claim.

“Clear land ownership is one major success factor for restoration, and clear rights about forest management and who can take the benefits from it,” says Max. “Nobody would restore a forest if the benefits that are required to sustain their livelihoods are not secured and may be taken by the government.”

A local fisherman in Indonesia's mangrove waters. Ricky Martin, CIFOR
A local fisherman in Indonesia’s mangrove waters. Ricky Martin, CIFOR

“There are numerous studies that show that Indigenous-managed lands hold some of the best protected forests in the world,” says Christophersen.

Eighteen percent of the world’s forests are now located within protected areas, surpassing the 17 percent goal set in the seminal Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

“Note, however, that Indigenous lands often perform better than state-protected areas,” says Nasi.

Africa, as the numbers show, is major sore spot. Christophersen says that the continent’s forests are often put behind other pressing development needs such as health, infrastructure and education. But the COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness around the definitive links between forest and ecosystem degradation and spread of zoonotic diseases, among other impending crises that can result from widespread biodiversity loss and general decline in environmental health.

“There are many issues that overshadow forest loss in African countries, but the rate of forest loss and degradation of land is being felt so acutely that we can no longer afford that,” he says.

Christophersen remains cautiously optimistic, though, due to the fact that, since 2012, the rate of deforestation has slowed while the global population and global economy have both grown – a decoupling of curves that had yet to ever occur.

The inclusion of forests into member states’ commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change, national policies, international programs such as UN-REDD that financially incentivize countries for forest conservation, improved public awareness and law enforcement, and commitments from the private sector are among the contributors to the reduction in the rate of forest loss.

“That has made me hopeful,” says Christophersen. “But whether we can flatten that curve of deforestation further is unclear.”



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