Illegal Loggers of the World, the U.S. is Out to Get You

WASHINGTON, DC, January 7, 2000 (ENS) - An area of forest roughly equal to the state of Georgia is being stripped from the Earth every year, and we are losing the equivalent of two football fields of tropical forest every second, a top level U.S. official said Thursday.

Action against illegal logging and increased use of satellite imagery are among several ways the United States plans to help protect and conserve the world's forests, said David Sandalow, assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science, in a speech at the National Press Club.

Sandalow was speaking at a meeting on future directions for leadership on international forest issues organized by the World Resources Institute and The Nature Conservancy.

The meeting was held in advance of the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests taking place in New York from January 31 to February 11 under the auspices of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

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Illegal logging on Mt. Kenya 1994 (Photo courtesy Rainer Bussmann)
The world has been losing an average of 38 million acres (15 million hectares) of forest each year. Some countries have lost more than 90 percent of their forest cover in the past few decades, he said.

Forests cover 40 percent of the Earth's land surface and are home to more than 70 percent of land living plants and animals. An estimated 10 to 30 million species are found in tropical forests alone.

"There is no one-size-fits-all solution to protecting the world's forests," Sandalow said. In particular, he warned against using scarce resources to negotiate an international convention on forests.

Although Sandalow did not say so, the forest industries of all nations including the United States would be limited in their activities by such an international agreement.

"When the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests meets next month, it should take the next step, which is to focus on implementation of what has already been agreed," said Sandalow. Governments have identified more than 135 proposals for action since international talks on forest policy began in 1992.

"We should move forward to shape a transparent, practical, results-oriented forum one focused not on talk but action," Sandalow urged. "This forum should bring together key international players from around the world to address specific, focused agendas. Environmental NGOs, industry and other stakeholders should be actively involved. We don't need to spend years negotiating a treaty; we need to make a difference for forests today."

Instead, Sandalow suggested a dozen initiatives that he said "would make a difference on the ground."

The Clinton administration will soon begin implementing the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, which authorizes the reduction of official debt owed to the United States by countries with significant tropical forests in exchange for conservation measures, Sandalow announced.

Alec Watson, vice president for international conservation of The Nature Conservancy reacted to this policy move with approval. "We are particularly excited about the positive potential of the Tropical Forest Conservation Act and the bipartisan effort that went into its creation. We believe this Act, if funded appropriately, can result in enormous progress for efforts to protect critical forests," he said.

Sandalow announced that the U.S. government will work to fight illegal logging and trade in illegally-harvested wood. Both activities are destroying forest ecosystems.

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Garden chairs made in Vietnam of illegally logged Cambodian timber. (Photo courtesy Global Witness)
This year, he said, the United States will host an international conference on illegal logging in Southeast Asia's Mekong watershed to "shine a spotlight" on the global problem and find new ways to stop it. "While we are starting with one region willing to tackle the issue, we hope other regions will follow the example of openly discussing illegal activities, with a view to identifying and implementing practical corrective measures."

Sandalow said the United States will actively pursue an initiative it proposed at the G-8 meeting last year to use remote sensing as a tool in managing forests and responding to forest fires around the globe. He said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched two environmental satellites in December that should allow routine production of accurate forest maps. The LANDSAT 7 and EOS TERRA satellites should allow routine production of accurate forest maps, providing a valuable new tool for natural resource managers and scientists that can be made available on the Internet.

"Efforts to monitor what is happening to and in forests have so far been rather crude, but are certainly indicative of the scale of change," said World Resources Institute (WRI) president Jonathan Lash. Next month, WRI and its partners will launch the Global Forest Watch - a major new network and tracking system that uses satellite imagery and ground level observations to improve global knowledge about the state of forests.

The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development will prepare a joint strategic plan for "targeted forest diplomacy," Sandalow said, focusing resources on those countries that wish to work together in this area.

Experts predict that world population will grow by more than 50 percent during the next 50 years. That number of people cannot be fed on current arable land with current agricultural practices and will cut down forests to create new farms. "To slow or prevent the conversion of forests to farmland around the globe, we must find new and innovative ways to improve agricultural yields, especially for tropical crops," Sandalow said.

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Clearcuts on steep slopes in Clayoquot Sound on the Pacific coast of Canada's Vancouver Island. (Photo courtesy Western Canada Wilderness Committee)
"The consumer who cares can help make a difference," Sandalow stressed. The marketplace can be a powerful tool for protecting and conserving forests with certification and labeling programs that identify wood products from sustainably managed forests.

Another important tool for valuing forests is carbon trading. "Forests play a central role in the global carbon cycle; we must find new and innovative ways to value the carbon-absorbing services that forests provide," Sandalow said.

Other suggestions included more training of forest managers; encouraging governments to use funds provided by their export credit and investment agencies to promote sound forest practices; getting local communities involved in forest protection, and addressing government subsidies that promote over-logging and distort trade.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) welcomed the proposals made by Sandalow for new international initiatives to protect the world's forests.

"International forest policy is one issue for which a global vision is sorely needed," said Lash, WRI president. "The fate of the world's remaining frontier forests hang in the balance," he emphasized.

"I cannot think of an important environmental issue that has been the subject of greater inter-governmental stagnation, lack of accord, or failure of resolve," Lash said.

Watson of The Nature Conservancy warned that "the extinction crisis that is currently sweeping our planet is largely the result of the rapid reduction in the extent of tropical forests in the world." In addition to the biological catastrophe, the economic and social consequences of forest devastation are enormous," he said.

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The results of logging in Brazil's Para state, December, 1999 (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
The Nature Conservancy is working with private industry, international non-profit partners, and developing country governments to develop climate action projects that stop deforestation of critical areas with funding from companies that are interested in slowing the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Watson said, "In a short time, we have raised over $20 million for tropical rainforest conservation and we believe that this mechanism has the potential to fundamentally alter the way in which the world values standing forests."

As examples of how these two environmental groups work towards forest preservation, in 1997, the government of Bolivia, The Nature Conservancy and American Electric Power sponsored a carbon sequestration project in the ecologically rich Noel Kempff National Park, providing more than $11 million to expand the park and retire adjacent timber concessions. The project is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equal to the lifetime emissions of 500,000 cars. Carbon dioxide is the heat trapping greenhouse gas held most to blame for global warming.

In 1997, the government of the South American nation of Suriname, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Resources Institute, Conservation International and others worked together to protect four million acres of primary tropical rainforest in Suriname.

Roughly 75 percent of the world's forests are found in just 16 countries: Russia, Brazil, Canada, the United States, China, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru, India, Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Sudan, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. About half of the world's forests are found in Russia, Brazil, Canada, and the United States.