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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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: