Papua New Guinea's tropical forests are being destroyed so quickly by logging, fires and farming that more than half could vanish by 2021, according to a study released Monday.
The loss of the world's third-largest rain forest would destroy a wealth of unique flora and fauna and deprive the region of a natural defense against global warming, the study by scientists at the University of Papua New Guinea and Australian National University found.
Analyzing three decades of satellite imagery, the researchers found that 19.8 million acres of forest was lost between 1972 and 2002.
In 2001, accessible forests were being cleared or degraded at a rate of 1.4 percent a year, the report found. At that pace, researchers fear 83 percent of the country's accessible forest — and 53 percent of its total forested area — will be gone or severely damaged by 2021.
"PNG's forests are a vital component of the majority of New Guinean's lives. They're also of national and regional significance because of their carbon storage factors," Phil Shearman, the report's lead author, told reporters at a press conference Monday.
Trees trap and absorb carbon dioxide, and the process of logging, from building roads to chopping down trees, emits carbon. Even more is released into the atmosphere when leftover tree material decomposes.
The report estimated that about 22 million tons of carbon will be released from Papua New Guinea's forests this year as a result of the logging industry — approximately the equivalent of the annual output of all the cars in Australia, the report's authors said.
Environmentalists have long accused Papua New Guinea of allowing foreign logging companies to cut down its forests with impunity. Enforcement of forest laws are lax and corruption widespread, they say.
Paying for protection?
But recently, Papua New Guinea has spearheaded efforts by tropical countries to establish a system in which they would be compensated for protecting their forests.
The proposal — called Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Degradation — was welcomed by governments at a U.N. climate change conference last December and will be part of future discussions on a new global warming pact.
Shearman, however, warned that Papua New Guinea authorities may have little left to protect once an agreement is reached if the pace of deforestation continues.
Papua New Guinea Forestry Minister Belden Namah said he agreed with the report's findings and was taking action to improve government logging policies. He said he wanted to enforce a policy to plant three trees for every tree cut down.
The report advised the government to employ forest sustainability programs, including stricter regulation of the commercial logging industry, which brings in annual revenue of $189 million but is one of the main drivers of forest destruction.
It also encouraged a better sharing of resources among the population and more comprehensive land-use education for farmers.
Lee Tan, of the environmental group Australian Conservation Foundation, called the report "fair" and "urgent."
"We can very confidently predict that if more of the forests are cut, there will be erosion, there will be landslides, lives lost and other calamities," Tan said.
She was also worried about the loss of biodiversity as the forest recedes.
"We fear logging and other forms of degradation are wiping out the forests before we even know what is there," Tan said.