Policy and the primary forest

Last chance to save a biodiversity cornerstone

A view of the Congo’s primary forests from Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda. (Photo by Liana Joseph).

A view of the Congo’s primary forests from Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda. (Photo by Liana Joseph).

There are forests and there are forests. All involve trees but some are more important than others when it comes to biodiversity and associated natural values. Primary forests are systems that are largely free from industrial-scale land uses, and spaces where natural processes still dominate. They provide maximum ecosystem benefits to humans and nature – and a new analysis suggests we need to act now if we are to save them.

Primary forests are critical for biodiversity conservation. Up to 57% of tropical forest species are dependent on old-growth forest habitat, and in the face of a rapidly changing climate they provide maximum natural adaptive capacity. And primary forests offer important refugia for many vulnerable species.

Intact forested watersheds generally result in higher quality water than other land covers (and alternative land uses) which increase sediment and generate up to 50% more water flow than regenerating forests. Primary forests are also the traditional home and territories of Indigenous peoples such as the Kayapo people of the Brazilian Amazon. Local people have strong incentive to preserve the forests they depend on as the basis of traditional subsistence uses including as a source of food, shelter and medicine.

New research led by Brendan Mackey of Griffith University and involving CEED researchers David Lindenmayer and James Watson and other colleagues from a variety of NGOs and universities, has shown how threatened primary forests are. Only one-quarter of primary forests now remain on Earth, with a mere 5% of this found in protected areas. Despite increasing global awareness, annual rates of primary forest loss remain as high as 2% in some countries.

Importantly, the study found that half of the world’s primary forest are found in five developed countries (the U.S., Canada, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand). The time is ripe for these nations to show leadership and promote the conservation of remaining primary forests as an urgent matter of global concern. This is critically important in international negotiations (eg, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Forum on Forests and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) as all fail to distinguish primary forests from industrial production forests, degraded forests, or even plantations.

Only one-quarter of primary forests now remain on Earth, with a mere 5% of this found in protected areas.” 

The authors identify four new actions that would provide a solid policy foundation for key international negotiations to help ensure primary forests persist into the 21st century:

  1. Recognise primary forests as a matter of global concern within international negotiations and not just as a problem in developing nations;
  2. Incorporate primary forests into environmental accounting, including the special contributions of their ecosystem services (including freshwater and watershed services), and use a science-based definition to distinguish primary forests;
  3. Prioritise the principle of avoided loss – emphasise policies that seek to avoid any further biodiversity loss and emissions from primary forest deforestation and degradation;
  4. Universally accept the important role of indigenous and community conserved areas – governments could use primary forest protection as a mechanism within multilateral environmental agreements to support sustainable livelihoods for the extensive populations of forest-dwelling peoples, especially traditional peoples, in developed and developing countries.
The Great Western Woodland in Western Australia is one of the most floristically diverse areas in the world and a centre of plant endemism. It also located in a developed country underscoring the fact that primary forests are not just an issue for the developing world. (Photo by Amanda Keesing).

The Great Western Woodland in Western Australia is one of the most floristically diverse areas in the world and a centre of plant endemism. It also located in a developed country underscoring the fact that primary forests are not just an issue for the developing world.
(Photo by Amanda Keesing).

The world community needs policies that seek to avoid any further biodiversity loss and eliminate carbon emissions from primary forest deforestation and degradation. Failure to do so will open the flood gates to the looming agro-industrial juggernaut.

As the 21st Century unfolds, there will be a growing pressure for the expansion of agricultural land at the expense of forest ecosystems. Without the implementation of urgent policy interventions recommended here, we stand to lose the last large blocks of primary forest on the planet in the next few decades. That loss would be to the detriment of all life on Earth.


More info: James Watson jwatson@wcs.org 

Reference 

Mackey B, DA DellaSala, C Kormos, D Lindenmayer, N Kumpel, B Zimmerman, S Hugh, V Young, S Foley, K Arsenis & JEM Watson (2014). Policy Options for the World’s Primary Forests in Multilateral Environmental Agreements. Conservation Letters. doi: 10.1111/conl.12120 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/conl.12120/abstract 

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