Forests play an important role in sustaining life on earth. They act as carbon sinks and help regulate climate locally and globally. Forests also act as reservoirs for excess water and therefore act as natural reservoirs and water treatment plants. They serve as natural stormwater management systems, mitigating the effects of flooding. Forests serve as habitats for countless species and a repository of genetic material for both plant and animal life.
Global Forest Cover
Approximately 31% of the world’s land is covered with forests. One-third of this forest area is primary forest or naturally regenerated forest where human activities have no or minimal impacts. However, the world’s forest cover is unevenly distributed; in some countries most of their land is covered with forest, while in others there is little or no forest cover.
Like many other ecosystems, forest ranges tend to ignore the geographic boundaries of countries. Europe has the highest forest cover of all continents, largely due to the huge forests of the Russian Federation. Therefore, about a quarter of the world’s forests are found in Europe. South America, which holds the Amazon forest, has 21% of the planet’s forest cover. North and Central America ranks third with about 18% of the world’s forests, most of which are in Canada and the USA.
It is interesting to note that the ten richest countries in forest account for two-thirds of the world’s forest cover, with the remaining 34% distributed among all the remaining countries. The Russian Federation alone has 20% of the world’s forest cover, but would rank 53rd among the world’s most forested countries due to the size of its total land mass.
10 Countries with the Highest Percentage of Forest Cover
1. Suriname – 98%
2. Guyana – 94%
3. Federated States of Micronesia – 92%
4. Gabon – 91%
5. Solomon Islands – 90%
6. Palau – 90%
7. Equatorial Guinea – 88%
8. Liberia – 80%
9. Papua New Guinea – 79%
10. Finland – 74%
Trends in Global Forest Cover by Country
Forest Cover and Limited Human Activity
Countries characterized by pristine forest cover include Suriname, Guyana, and Micronesia, and Gabon, where over 90% of its land area is dominated by forest cover. These countries are relatively small in terms of both land area and total population. Most of these countries are mountainous, and the population tends to be concentrated in flatter, more navigable areas. Due to the small populations of these countries, the demands on their natural resources are very low. These nations also lack industrialized economies and therefore have limited land degradation and resource use.
Forest Cover in Industrialized Countries
Finland, Sweden, Japan, and South Korea are all industrialized countries with large populations with relatively extensive forest cover. Japan, for example, serves as an interesting case study. 300 years ago, deforestation in Japan was at critical levels. However, human intervention has over time restored Japan’s forest cover to its current 68.47% rate. The Japanese began to use the resources in their forests more sustainably and began to grow trees specifically for timber. This reduced the felling of trees in the forests and allowed the regeneration of Japanese forests. After World War II, there was also a continuous work of reforestation to repair the damage done to the forests caused by the war. Japan’s forest cover is currently stable with little increase or decrease in forested areas in recent years.
Finland and Sweden have high forest cover and thriving timber industries. Forestry is an important economic activity in both countries. Sweden’s IKEA, for example, is a world-renowned brand with many products made from Scandinavian timber. The population of these two Scandinavian countries is concentrated in urban areas. 85% of Swedes and Finns live in urban areas and most of the remaining land is uninhabited. Most of this desolate land is forest. It is interesting to note that forest ownership in these northern countries is significantly different compared to that seen in tropical countries. 50% of forests in Sweden are family owned, 14% of Swedish forests are state owned and industrial enterprises own 25% of the forests there. In Finland, 61% of forests belong to the private sector and 30% to the state.
The forestry models of these two Scandinavian countries combine conservation and economy. These countries earn income from taxing income from the forestry industry, which can then be used not only for social welfare programs but also for environmental welfare initiatives. As for conservation, more than 10% of forests per country are protected areas where logging is not allowed. However, Scandinavian forestry in non-protected areas tends to follow the responsible reforestation protocols of Sweden and Finland, where planting and harvesting is a continuous cycle. These two Scandinavian countries are also investing in research to make their timber industries and forestry policies ecologically sustainable.
Changes in Forest Cover by Regions
Forest cover is constantly changing, similar to both natural patterns and human activities. Increasing forest cover can occur naturally as forests expand their boundaries into previously bare land. It also happens as a result of afforestation (human activities that plant trees to produce forests where they would not otherwise exist), as in Bahrain, Egypt, and Rwanda. Forest cover may also remain stable, either through the natural regeneration process or as a result of human reforestation following forestry activities.
The increase or stabilization of forest cover occurs mostly in Europe and to a lesser extent in the Near and Far East. The trend in these regions is somewhat mitigating the devastating effects of deforestation still occurring in Central America, South America and Africa.
Forest areas naturally decrease when disasters such as forest fires and volcanic activities destroy forests. However, the most common cause of forest loss is by far human activities. Deforestation is causing rapid deforestation near the coasts of Central America, the Amazon Basin, the Congo Basin, and West Africa.
Between 2000 and 2010, deforestation reduced global forest cover by an astonishing 13 million hectares. Deforestation reduces the world’s carbon sinks by acting as a catalyst for ongoing climate change. Decreased forest cover also causes loss of catchment areas, which can cause worse flooding in the wet season, more severe droughts in the dry season, and soil erosion, always due to water and wind.
Writer: Can Baskin