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Drivers of forest degradation

Many countries are highly dependent on wood to meet national energy needs and this use accounts for some three-quarters of total roundwood production (UNESCAP and ADB 2000). The contribution of fuelwood to total energy consumption varies widely, from less than 5 per cent to more than 85 per cent. In Nepal, for example, fuelwood accounts for 70 per cent of the country's total energy demand (Bhatta and Shrestha 1996). Where fuelwood collection relies primarily on natural forests, it can be a major contributor to forest degradation and depletion. Overharvesting in steep areas is a particular cause for concern as it may impair the forest's protective functions of safeguarding watersheds and river flow (UNESCAP and ADB 2000)

Commercial logging, as here in Myanmar, is an important cause of deforestation in parts of Asia and the Pacific

Source: UNEP, Aye Myint Than, Topham Picture point

Fire is an important and recurring phenomenon in many forest ecosystems. In Asia and the Pacific, the severity of forest fires has been exacerbated by droughts and by land clearance. As a result, forest fires have become a major cause of deforestation in many countries, especially in East and Southeast Asia. The Indonesian fires of 1996-97 are the best known example but serious forest fires have also occurred in Australia, China and Mongolia in recent years. In response, fire detection and monitoring systems are now in place in several countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has established a Forest Fire Management Centre in Thailand to provide training and research (FAO 2001a).

Much forest degradation in the Pacific Island countries (PICs) stems from commercial logging. While providing substantial income to some countries, large-scale operations have degraded large proportions of the islands, affecting biodiversity, changing the hydrochemical balance and reducing food availability. New Zealand and Australia have also lost large amounts of their native forest and vegetation. Nearly 70 per cent of New Zealand was covered with native forest before the Europeans arrived in the early 19th century; it now covers only 16 per cent of the land area (MFE New Zealand 1997). In the 1970s and 1980s, the Government of New Zealand introduced subsidies to clear forests for agricultural production and exotic forestry which, compounded with artificially low stumpage fees, encouraged overexploitation of forests. The subsequent removal of these subsidies has resulted in some marginal pasture reverting to scrub and forest.