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GEO-3: GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT OUTLOOK  
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Effects of altering forests

The effects of deforestation, forest degradation and forest fires represent a permanent loss of the potential capacity of forest resources to generate economic benefits (CDEA 1992). These impacts are more severe in some countries than others. Most Caribbean countries have depleted forest resources so much that they must now import forest products, creating an additional need for foreign exchange. In countries with extensive forest resources, such as Brazil, deforestation has had less overall impact, although at the local level the impact can be very significant.

Forest fires in Latin America and the Caribbean

Fire is a traditional land use tool for opening up new land to agriculture and making hunting easier. Uncontrolled wildfire is now a major concern: forest fires can destroy up to 50 per cent of the forest's surface biomass, with severe effects on forest fauna (UNEP 2000).

Forests were particularly vulnerable to fire in 1997-99 due to seasonal droughts associated with El Niņo and decline in forest quality. In Central America, more than 2.5 million ha of land caught fire in 1998 with the greatest losses in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua (Cochrane in press). In Mexico alone, there were 14 445 separate fires (FAO 2001a). The same year, large-scale fires also affected many South American countries.

Social and economic costs of fires are high, when full account is taken of medical costs, airport closures, and timber and erosion losses. The damage resulting from the 1998 forest fires in Latin America has been crudely estimated at US$10-15 billion. The first South American Seminar on the Control of Forest Fires was held in Brazil in 1998, and policy makers are starting to realize that emergency response needs to be coupled with better land-use practices. In Mexico, for instance, the Ministries of Agriculture and Forestry have been collaborating since 1998 to reduce the threat of agricultural burning to forests (FAO 2001a).