A valuable policy-making and investment tool for sustainable development, addressing climate change


Photo credit: FAO

Larch trees in Mongolia’s Altansumber forest.

FAO study provides the most detailed snapshot to date on trees, forests and land use in the world’s drylands

A new FAO report helps to fill a significant knowledge gap on the presence and extent of forests and trees in the world’s drylands, where the food security and livelihoods of millions of people, already precarious, are increasingly being threatened by climate change.

Issued today, the study’s preliminary findings – the full report will be launched later this year – show that trees are present with hugely varying densities on almost one-third of the world’s 6.1 billion hectares of drylands, which cover an area more than twice the size of Africa. Almost 18 percent of this area contains forests.

An estimated 2 billion people, 90 percent of whom are in developing countries, live in drylands. Recent studies have indicated the need to restore these areas to cope with the effects of drought, desertification and land degradation.

In particular, water availability in drylands is expected to decline further due to changes in climate and land use.  Poor people living in remote rural areas will be most vulnerable to food shortages, which combined with violence and social upheaval, are already leading to forced migration in dryland regions in Africa and western Asia.

Until now, there has been little statistically based knowledge on dryland trees – particularly those growing outside forests – despite their vital importance to humans and the environment.

The leaves and fruit of trees are sources of food for people and fodder for animals; their wood provides fuel for cooking and heating and can be a source of income for poor households; trees protect soils, crops and animals from the sun and winds, while forests are often rich in biodiversity.

New data, technology made large-scale study possible in record time

As the first statistical sampling-based assessment of land use in the world’s drylands, the FAO study provides a baseline for monitoring changes in dryland forests, tree cover (density), and land use. It provides governments, donors and other stakeholders in sustainable development with a valuable tool to guide policy-making and targeting investments.

Using satellite images available publicly through Google Earth Engine, Bing Maps and other sources, FAO’s study draws information from over 200,000 sample plots each measuring approximately 0.5 hectares. The sampling error for the estimate of the total forest land for all drylands is about +/- 1 percent.

The satellite images were interpreted using Collect Earth, a tool in the Open Foris suite of free, open source software developed by FAO’s Forestry Department to make it easier for experts from around the world to collect, analyse, report and share data.

Read the full article: FAO



Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.