BRAZZAVILLE The rate of destruction of the world's three largest forests fell 25 percent this decade compared with the previous one, but remains alarmingly high in some countries, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said.
A report entitled The State of the Forests in the Amazon Basin, Congo Basin and South East Asia, was released to coincide with a summit in the Congo Republic bringing together delegates from 35 countries occupying those forests, with a view to reaching a global deal on management and conservation.
The Amazon and the Congo are the world's first and second biggest forests, respectively, and its third biggest -- the Borneo Mekong -- is in Indonesia.
They sink billions of tonnes of carbon and house two thirds of the world's remaining land species between them.
The study found that annual rate of deforestation across the three regions, which account for more than 80 percent of the world's tropical forests, was 5.4 million hectares between 2000 and 2010, down a quarter from 7.1 million hectares in the previous decade.
Statistics showed that forest destruction in the Congo basin had remained stable but low over the last 20 years, whilst in South East Asia the rate of deforestation more than halved.
Countries which had previously had high levels of forest loss, such as Brazil and Indonesia, have had some success tackling the problem through better conservation awareness and government policy said the report's author, Mette Wilkie.
But she suggested this was no cause for complacency, especially of the threat from farming.
"Deforestation is higher than it ought to be," Wilkie told Reuters. "The Amazon basin has large scale land conversion for farming and crops, Congo has small scale conversion, mainly for subsistence farming, whilst South East Asia is a mixture."
Indonesia's forests in particular have been ravaged by clearing for palm oil crops in the past, although the government last month signed a 2-year moratorium on forest clearing, part of a carbon offset deal with Norway worth $1 billion.
Ecuador, Burundi and Cambodia had the highest rates of forest loss whilst Rwanda, Vietnam and the Philippines were amongst countries which had seen their forests grow in recent years, according to the study.
Wilkie said growing global demand for food, expected to rise by 70 percent by 2050, would put more pressure on these ecosystems.
REDD+, a fund in which richer countries pay poorer nations to protect their forests in an effort to tackle climate change, will be crucial to future success.
"$4 billion dollars has been pledged to REDD+, it's a huge amount of money for forests for the first time, it's important we make good use of it," she said, adding it would take time to develop effective strategies to balance the demands of conservation with the needs of poor countries to provide food security.
Only 3.5 percent of the forest areas surveyed are currently under effective forest management according to the study's findings.
Brazil, which has the largest forest area of any country in the world, has an important role to play in driving the protection process, according to Fernando Tatagiba, an analyst from the Brazilian environment ministry, because of its growing financial muscle and improved forest management programs.
However he said more needed to be done and that deforestation, mainly to accommodate the country's booming agricultural sector, remained too high.
"The challenge we have is to continue producing, because our agriculture is hugely productive, but without cutting the forests down," he told Reuters, adding this could be achieved by using 150 million hectares of unused degraded forest rather than clearing new areas.
(Editing by Tim Cocks and Angus MacSwan)