ROME (Reuters) - Deforestation slowed in the last decade, in the first sign that global conservation efforts are bearing fruit, but an area the size of Costa Rica is still being destroyed each year, the United Nations said on Thursday.
A report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that about 13 million hectares of forest a year were converted to other uses or lost through natural causes in 2000- 2010, down from 16 million a year in the previous decade.
The net loss of forest area slowed to 5.2 million a year between 2000 and 2010. That was still an area the size of Costa Rica, but down from 8.3 million a year in the 1990s thanks largely to ambitious tree planting programs in Asia.
Efforts by major offenders such as Indonesia and Brazil to reduce deforestation also helped reverse the trend.
"For the first time, we are able to show that the rate of deforestation has decreased globally as a result of concerted efforts taken both at local and international level," said Eduardo Rojas, assistant director of FAO's Forestry Department.
The FAO said tougher legislation had helped curb destruction of woodland. Seventy-six countries have issued or updated forest policies since 2000, many of them allocating woodland to local communities for sustainable development.
The proportion of forests contained in national parks and other legally-protected areas has climbed to 13 percent, having risen by 94 million hectares since 1990.
Forests cover just over 4 billion hectares or 31 percent of the world's total land area. They store some 289 gigatons of carbon -- more than all the carbon in the atmosphere -- but this decreased by 0.5 gigatons a year during 2000-2010.
"A lower deforestation rate and the establishment of new forests have helped bring down the high level of carbon emissions from forests caused by deforestation," said Mette Loyche Wilkie, coordinator of FAO's Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010.
However, Wilkie warned tree planting programs in China, India and Vietnam, accounting for most of the recent gains in forest area, would end by 2020. She urged governments to quickly put in place measures to slow deforestation.
"Without such interventions, we risk a sudden return to high rates of net forest loss and of carbon emissions from forests, which we had in the 1990s," Wilkie said.
Indonesia sharply reduced the speed of its deforestation to 0.5 million hectares a year between 2000 and 2010, versus 1.9 million a year during the previous decade. Brazil lowered its own figure to 2.6 million from 2.9 million hectares.
South America, nonetheless, had the highest regional level of net deforestation at 4 million hectares a year, followed by Africa with 3.4 million hectares.
Asia, by contrast, expanded its forest area by a total of close to 2.2 million hectares a year, thanks to the reforestation in China, India and Vietnam which added 4 million hectares a year of fresh woodland.
In North and Central America, the forest area remained fairly stable, while in Europe it continued to expand, although at a slower rate than previously.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)