The area of intact forest landscapes is shrinking worldwide according to new research published in Science Advances last week.

The paper, titled, “The last frontiers of wilderness: Tracking loss of intact forest landscapes from 2000 to 2013”, is available here. It was written by Peter Potapov (University of Maryland), Matthew C. Hansen (University of Maryland), Lars Laestadius (Laestadius Consulting LLC), Svetlana Turubanova (University of Maryland), Alexey Yaroshenko (Greenpeace Russia), Christoph Thies (Greenpeace Germany), Wynet Smith (Global Forest Watch Canada), Ilona Zhuravleva (Greenpeace Russia), Anna Komarova (Greenpeace Russia), Susan Minnemeyer (World Resources Institute), and Elena Esipova (Transparent World).

The authors used Landsat satellite imagery to map the extent of intact forest landscapes between 2000 and 2013, and located where the forest has been altered and fragmented, and identified what caused these changes.

What are intact forest landscapes?

The authors define intact forest landscapes as follows:

An intact forest landscape (IFL) is a seamless mosaic of forest and naturally treeless ecosystems with no remotely detected signs of human activity and a minimum area of 500 km2.

The authors acknowledge that no ecosystems are “truly intact”, because humans have impacted the entire earth to some extent. The authors explain that,

IFLs may also include areas affected by low-intensity and historic human influence, such as hunting, scattered small-scale shifting cultivation, and preindustrial selective logging.

The size of these intact forest landscapes is important. The larger they are, the higher their conservation value. The importance of intact forest landscapes was recognised in Motion 48, adopted at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawai’i, that

“encourages states, the private sector and international financial institutions to:
a. avoid loss and degradation of primary forests, including intact forest landscapes;
b. promote conservation of primary forests, including intact forest landscapes”.

Intact forest landscapes account for 20% of tropical forest areas, and 40% of total above ground tropical forest carbon is stored in intact forest landscapes.

How fast are we losing intact forest landscapes?

Since 2000, the authors found, the area of intact forest landscapes has shrunk by 7.2%. Even worse, the rate of loss is increasing. Between 2011 and 2013, three times as much intact forest was lost compared to the period 2001 to 2003.

More than half of the reduction in intact forest area took place in three countries: Russia lost 179,000 km2 of intact forest; Brazil lost 157,000 km2, and Canada lost 142,000 km2. Romania lost all its intact forest landscapes. Paraguay lost 79% of its intact forest area, and Laos, Equitorial Guinea, Cambodia, and Nicaragua each lost more than 35%.

If this rate of loss continues, Paraguay, Laos, Cambodia, and Equatorial Guinea will lose all their intact forest landscapes over the next 20 years. In 60 years’ time, another 15 countries will have lost all their intact forest, including the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Bolivia, and Myanmar.

What is driving the loss of intact forests?

The authors report that the main causes of intact forest area reduction are “Industrial logging, agricultural expansion, fire, and mining/resource extraction”.

Top of the list is industrial timber extraction:

Many IFLs contain high-value timber resources, and logging and associated fragmentation by roads are the leading causes of IFL area reduction worldwide.

When logging companies move into intact forests, they reduce the amount of carbon stored in the forest, reduce biodiversity, and increase the likelihood of wildfires. Logging roads fragment forests, destroy habitat, and lead to an increase of poaching.

The authors found that new oil palm plantations are affecting intact forests in all tropical regions. They also found a link between industrial logging and further destruction of forests:

Plantations usually follow selective logging expansion and represent an example of how industrial logging operations can set off a cascade of interventions that eventually result in the final conversion of natural forests to industrial monoculture plantations.

Does forest certification help reduce the rate of loss of intact forests?

The authors analysed timber concessions in three countries in central (Cameroon, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo) using the logging concession database collected by the World Resources Institute.

In these countries, the authors found that the certification of logging concessions had “a negligible impact on slowing IFL fragmentation”. And “selective logging within FSC-certified concessions is a significant driver of IFL area reduction in central Africa”.

Some of the concessions were certified to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standard. Certified concessions had the same or higher proportion of IFL area reduction than noncertified concessions, whereas the IFL area loss was at least four times lower in PAs than in timber concessions.

Later in the paper, the authors write,

Our results from the period 2000–2013 suggest that the pace of IFL fragmentation due to selective logging in central Africa is faster within FSC-certified concessions than outside them, due to selective logging and fragmentation by logging road construction. By definition, selective logging and establishment of associated infrastructure in an IFL reduce its area. Although we do not know the degree to which IFL fragmentation is actively avoided by logging operations, it is evident that selective logging within FSC-certified concessions is a significant driver of IFL area reduction in central Africa.

Do protected areas help?

The authors found that, “Legal protection has been effective at lessening the reduction of IFL area.” Protected areas help slow the reduction of IFL area from logging, but are less effective at stopping agricultural expansion.

Of the 10 PAs in Africa, classified as IUCN categories I and II that experienced more than 1% IFL area loss, 7 were subjected to smallholder agricultural expansion. Two of these PAs are in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park (in which all IFLs disappeared) and Tsaratanana Strict Nature Reserve (in which 28% of the IFL area was lost). In both cases, slash-and-burn agriculture expanded within park boundaries. The same process was observed in Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of the Congo), which lost 3.3% of its IFL area due to agricultural expansion.

What about indigenous peoples?

Obviously this is important research. It is crucial to protect intact forest areas from industrial logging, road construction, mining operations, oil and gas exploration and drilling, hydropower dams, and industrial plantations.

But many of these intact forest landscapes overlap with the territories of indigenous peoples. While the authors make clear that intact forest landscapes can include low-intensity activities including “hunting, scattered small-scale shifting cultivation, and preindustrial selective logging”, they recommend increasing the protection of intact forest landscapes. Currently only 12% of intact forest landscapes are in protected areas.

Given the record of human rights abuses associated with protected areas, it would have been nice if the authors had considered the importance of recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in planning and implementing conservation activities.

And as an increasing number of studies show (for example by the Centre for International Forestry Research and the World Bank), deforestation is significantly lower in community-managed forests than in strictly protected forests. Indigenous peoples and local communities must be at the centre of any conservation proposals.

Yet the word “indigenous” is mentioned only twice in the paper and the word “rights” does not appear at all.

PHOTO credit: Examples of the ongoing expansion of oil palm plantations within IFLs in tropical regions, Potapov et al (2017).


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