By Nancy Harris, Rachael Petersen and Susan Minnemeyer Not all forests are created equal. Some of the most important forest ecosystems in the world are large areas of pristine wilderness, known as “Intact Forest Landscapes (IFL).” These ecosystems play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity and regulating the climate, and provide services such as water and air purification, nutrient cycling, and erosion and flood control.
Yet they’re also under threat. New analysis reveals that since 2000, more than 8 percent of the world’s IFLs have been degraded—an area measuring 104 million hectares, or three times the size of Germany. That means human activities disturbed 20,000 hectares of pristine forest every day for the past 13 years. Greenpeace, the University of Maryland, and Transparent World, in collaboration with WRI and WWF-Russia, conducted an extensive analysis using satellite imagery to determine the location and extent of the world’s remaining IFLs. Now through Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring platform, users can visualize where these areas have been degraded, view satellite imagery of the area, and assess what is driving this change. Here, we evaluate the state of the world’s IFLs—as well as what their loss means for the health of the planet.
What is driving Intact Forest Landscape degradation?
Many types of activities are driving change in intact forests, and patterns of change differ geographically. But our analysis revealed that many large areas were not stripped entirely of all forest cover. Instead, fragmentation is the biggest form of Intact Forest Landscapes degradation, accounting for almost three-quarters of the global total. Fragmentation—or the splitting up of IFLs—is caused by the expansion of logging, mining and development activities, as well as the infrastructure that comes along with these, such as roads. Fragmentation opens remote forest areas to further development, including increased logging and permanent conversion to other land uses.
The fragmentation of IFLs is problematic because smaller, more isolated forest patches will lose species faster than those that are larger or less isolated. Small forest “islands” typically cannot support the same biodiversity or ecosystem services that a single contiguous forest would, even if their combined area is much larger than the single contiguous forest. Many species, particularly large mammals such as elephants, tigers, and caribou, depend on large tracts of unbroken forest to maintain viable populations.
Where are the world’s remaining intact forests concentrated?
Almost 95 percent of IFLs are concentrated within tropical and boreal regions. Just three countries—Canada, Russia and Brazil—contain 65 percent of the world’s remaining IFLs. These countries also account for more than half of all IFL degradation, although the drivers in each country are vastly different, from human-caused fires and logging in Russia, to road construction and conversion to agriculture in Brazil.
Where are intact forest landscapes being degraded?
Degradation means that the quality of IFLs and their ability to support critical ecological functions have declined. Our analysis yielded troubling results around the globe:
- Although subtropical regions contain the least amount of intact forests, nearly 30 percent of these areas have been degraded in some way in just 13 years.
- The largest areas of IFL degradation are found in the Northern boreal forest belt of Canada, Russia and Alaska (47 percent) and tropical forest regions such as the Amazon (25 percent) and Congo (9 percent) basins.
- Most of the world’s largest intact landscapes—that is, forest landscapes that exceed 10 million hectares—have remained intact; it is the small- and medium-sized IFLs that are declining.
- The countries with the highest degradation proportional to their initial area in 2000 are Paraguay, Australia, Bolivia, Myanmar and Gabon.
- The countries with the highest total area of degradation since 2000 are Canada, Russia, Brazil, the United States and Bolivia.
- Countries with the lowest rates of degradation are Japan, Vanuatu, Nepal, Cuba and Kazakhstan.
For example, Paraguay degraded 78 percent of its IFLs—the highest rate of any country in the world. It’s also the country with one of the highest rates of forest loss, due primarily to conversion of dry Chaco forests for soy production and pastures. These IFLs were degraded by conversion to agriculture and fragmentation by road expansion to connect industrial farm areas.
Can’t we just put the pieces back together again?
The only way to maintain IFLs’ full range of ecosystem services is to maintain their “intactness”; they cannot easily be restored once fragmentation and degradation have occurred. This new analysis has far-reaching implications for reducing deforestation, achieving climate change commitments, and protecting biodiversity. WRI recommends:
- Government leaders should steer development away from IFLs. In addition, officials can slow IFL destruction by prioritizing legal protection of these areas.
- Companies with sustainability commitments should avoid IFLs when sourcing commodities like timber, palm oil, beef and soy.
- Forest sustainability certifications such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil should give special consideration to include IFLs in their assessment criteria and ensure effective implementation of commitments to protect intact forests.