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  • The Region in Review: International Issues and Events, 2007
  • Karin Von Strokirch (bio)

The world’s natural forests are under unprecedented strain in the twenty-first century. Recent global and Pacific reports document the appalling extent of logging in the tropics and its negative effects on communities, ecosystems, and developing economies. For the rural majority in Melanesia, uncontrolled logging has profound consequences for subsistence, traditional culture, health, income, and civil rights. Causes of the tropical forest crisis are multidimensional. These range from inefficient harvesting and processing, misguided forestry policy, and relentless demand for timber, to inadequate regional and global governance. The crux of the problem lies with unsustainable yields, destructive methods, and illegal company practices, facilitated by official corruption.

The United Nations (UN) is attending to deforestation because of its global ramifications for development, climate change, and biodiversity. Non-government organizations have long been sounding the alarm. Bilateral and multilateral donors are incorporating sustainable forestry into aid programs. The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (spc) is promoting national reform and liaising with global forest agencies. Despite this flurry of activity and the rapid pace of deforestation in Melanesia, forest policy has been a blind spot for the Pacific Islands Forum (pif). The Forum has devoted high-level policy direction to the management of tuna stocks (von Strokirch 2007), including major pronouncements at its last meeting in Tonga. Forests urgently warrant a comparable spot on the regional agenda, with concerted reforms in this vital but ailing sector.

This review outlines current deforestation rates in the world, Pacific trends, the importance of forestry to regional economies, and the socioeconomic and environmental costs of prevailing industry practices. Unsustainable forestry practices are analyzed, including the role of Malaysian companies, the insidious forms taken by illegal logging, associated corruption, and the complicity of consumer nations in the trade. A brief chronology of global institutions, milestones, and debates on forests is followed by a focus on recent developments in 2007. The agenda of global agencies and donors illuminates options for the Pacific to develop a regional forest policy and the external sources of support they can draw on.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (fao) described the gravity of trends: “The world has just under 4 billion hectares of forest, covering 30 percent of the world’s land area. From 1990 to 2005, the world lost 3 percent of its forest area, a decrease of some 0.2 percent per year” (fao 2007, ix). In the period 2000 to 2005, about 13 million hectares of forest cover were cleared each year, or 73,000 football fields per day. Of 1.6 billion trees removed globally each [End Page 424] year, almost 1 billion are not replaced (ago 2007). It is estimated that only 12 percent of the world’s forests are under sustainable management (unff 2007, 35).

Forest cover has stabilized or increased in developed countries with temperate climates, mainly in North America and Europe, where environmental awareness is higher, plantations are widespread, and forestry institutions strong. Developing countries with tropical forests experienced a persistent net loss of tree cover. According to the International Tropical Timber Organization (itto)—whose members account for 76 percent of tropical timber production and 90 percent of trade—in itto producers, forest cover has declined from 52 percent in 1985 to 46 percent in 2005. itto member production of tropical logs totaled 137 million cubic meters in 2006 (itto 2007, 20, 21).

In Southeast Asia, net forest loss accelerated. Several countries, notably Indonesia, lost total forest cover at rates exceeding 1.5 percent a year. Loss of primary forests (not counting plantations) in Southeast Asia was even more disturbing at 2 percent a year. Oceania, including the Pacific Islands, Australia, and New Zealand, incurred net losses of 0.17 percent a year from 2000 to 2005. After a recovery in the 1990s, Oceania’s natural forests have experienced a decline since 2000 (fao 2007, 16).

Net losses to forest cover in Melanesia are ongoing. Fiji’s forest totals about 1 million hectares, with only small remnants of primary forest; most natural forests have been logged or converted to other land use. Deforestation in Fiji during the 1990s averaged 2,000 hectares...