More than 23 million acres of the world's forests - enough to cover the whole of Scotland - are disappearing each year because of logging, mining and land clearance for agriculture.
The scale of deforestation is so great that some countries, such as Indonesia, could lose entire rainforests in the next 10 years. The appetite for wood for furniture, floors and building in Europe and North America is shrinking the world's forests at a rate of 2.4 per cent every 10 years, official figures show.
Hilary Benn, an International Development minister, who released the United Nations statistics, said that they did not take into account deforestation caused by "trade in illegal timber".
According to the UN figures showing the depletion of forests between 1990 and 2000, the worst-affected country was Haiti, which lost 5.7 per cent of its stock in that period. Saint Lucia's forestry was eroded by 4.9 per cent and El Salvador's by 4.6 per cent. Other big losers included Micronesia (4.5 per cent), Comoros (4.3 per cent) and Rwanda (3.9 per cent).
The habitats of the orang-utan, bonobo ape and lowland gorilla are under threat and the world's rarest creatures, including the Sumatran tiger and rhino, are being forced to retreat into Indonesia's ever- shrinking forests.
The figures follow the disclosure by The Independent of the alarming rate at which the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed. Logging of Brazil's rainforests has leapt by 40 per cent in the past year, with 25,500sq km felled in that time.
Andy Tait, the forests campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "The world bank estimates that the lowland rainforest of Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, which is the home of the orang-utan, has less than 10 years to go until it is completely logged out."
MPs called on the Government to put more pressure on international governments to use wood produced in sustainable logging programs.
Norman Baker, Environment spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said the Government must stop using mahogany and sapele wood in its public building projects.
"Deforestation is an almost irreversible process. You cannot grow a forest overnight. Excessive forest farming must be curbed. Otherwise the adage that 'forests proceed man, deserts follow him' will sadly ring true," he said.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd