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Title:    1997 was the year the world caught fire, says WWF
Source:   Agence France-Presse
Status:   Copyright 1997, contact source to reprint
Date:     Tuesday, December 16, 1997

LONDON, Dec 16 (AFP) More tropical forest burned around the world in 1997 than at any other time in recorded history, a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature said Tuesday.

The fund said "1997 will be remembered as the year the world caught fire," said Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, head of its forest programme.

And it called for the setting up of an international court for the environment to rule on cases where environmental mismanagement at a national level had a major global impact.

At least five million hectares (12.3 million acres) of forests and other land burned in Indonesia and Brazil alone, along with vast areas of Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Peru, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and other parts of Africa. Large scale fires also burned in Australia, China and Russia. 

Jeanrenaud said new figures showed that in the Brazilian Amazon, forest fires increased by more than 50 percent over 1996. Many fires were started deliberately to clear land for planting or cover up illegal logging.

The report said infuences of the El Nino weather pattern, intensified by pollution-induced climate change, had turned previously moist forests into drier habitats which burned more easily.

"We are creating a vicious circle of destruction, where increased fires are both a result of changes in the weather and a contributory factor to these changes," said Jeanrenaud.

The spectacular fires in Indonesia which threw up a smog haze across large expanses of southeast Asia earlier this year had set peat deposits on fire which would continue to burn deep underground for months or even years to come, he said.

He estimated one million hectares (2.47 million acres) of peat forests were still burning in Indoensia and would produce more carbon dioxide in the next six months than the entire annual contribution from cars and power stations in western Europe.

Among forest sites destroyed or damaged in the past year were: 

The report said forest fires which occurred naturally provided ecological benefits. But it criticised forest mismanagement and cited the United States as an example. It said the US routinely suppressed forest fires, disrupting ecological processes and increasing the risks of greater and more destructive fires in the future.

The report calls for control of illegal activities and strict enforcement of existing natural laws.

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