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Less than half of world’s humid tropical forests have high ecological integrity: Study

  • Over 93% of the Earth’s best-quality and least-disturbed tropical forests have no legal protection from destruction, according to a study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
  • Humid broadleaf tropical and subtropical forests cover just 14% of the Earth’s land surface, but support at least half of all species and offer key ecosystem services, making them crucial to meeting global climate and conservation targets.
  • As a result of human activities, 33% of the biome has already been deforested and a further 22% is degraded. The study makes recommendations for maintaining existing protections, adding new ones, mitigating human activities, and restoring degraded forests.
  • The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will set 30-year conservation goals in 2021. New satellite imaging data offers a chance to set improved targets for forest protection and restoration, taking canopy structure into account.
A secondary forest in Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, Democratic Republic of Congo. Forests with high ecological integrity can include both primary and secondary forest. They are categorized as the highest priority for protection in the study analysis. Image courtesy of CIFOR via Flickr (CC-BY NC-ND).

Only a tiny fraction of the world’s most pristine tropical forests are protected from destruction, according to a recent study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Humid broadleaf tropical and sub-tropical forests cover just 14% of the Earth’s land surface, but support at least half of the world’s species and provide important ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and water cycling. This makes these ecosystems crucial to meeting global climate and conservation targets such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

However, the study found that only 47% of the remaining humid tropical forests globally have high ecological integrity — possessing tall trees and closed canopies with limited human activity — a total area of 1.9 million hectares (7,336 square miles). These tend to be older forests with larger trees and more canopy layers, which harbor high levels of biodiversity, provide high quality ecosystem services like carbon storage, and tend to be more resilient to a changing climate. Just 6.5% of these high ecological integrity forests are under legal protection.

“Tall forests with closed-canopies and low human pressure typical of natural conditions comprise half of the global humid tropical forest estate, largely limited to the Amazon and Congo basins,” said Andrew Hansen of Montana State University who led the study. “The vast majority of these forests have no formal protection,” putting them “at significant risk.”

To achieve their results, Hansen and his team used high-resolution data collected by NASA’s ICESat-2, and Landsat-7 and -8 satellites to calculate canopy height, tree cover, and time since disturbance, which they estimated using the extent of forest loss between 2000 and 2017. They then combined all of this information into a single measure evaluating canopy structure.

The authors next overlaid data from an index of human pressure — taking into account local human population size, land use, and nearby transport infrastructure like roads — to calculate a new scale: the Forest Structural Integrity Index (FSII), which they used to create a map of the ecological integrity of humid broadleaf forests across the tropics.

“The coolest aspect [of the study’s measuring system] is that it is simple, straightforward, easy to grasp, has a pantropical coverage, and allows decision-makers to have a portfolio of conservation strategies to conserve or improve the quality of the remaining forests,” said Lourens Poorter, a Professor in tropical forest ecology at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study.

However, Poorter expressed “serious concerns” about the research team’s use of canopy structure as an index of forest degradation, saying that continent- or biome-level comparisons “ignore the role of the biophysical environment in shaping forest structure, thus suggesting that changes in forest structure are only due to [human] disturbance.” He questioned whether the FSII is representative of a forest’s full ecological value, suggesting it may be a poor proxy for species richness, the presence of endemics, or carbon sequestration potential and other ecosystem services. “Tall forests with low human pressure are not necessarily the priority areas to conserve,” he said.

The authors acknowledge that some forests of high conservation importance, such as the lowland forests of Borneo and Sumatra, fell outside of their priority areas in this study. The researchers recommend that policymakers and forest managers use the FSII framework in conjunction with national-level analyses to avoid underprioritizing forests where targeted conservation efforts could be most effective.

Researchers mapped the distribution of high structural integrity (dark green), high structural condition with high human pressure (light green), and low structural condition (dark brown) across the humid tropical forest biome. Image courtesy of Hansen, A.J., Burns, P., Ervin, J. et al. A policy-driven framework for conserving the best of Earth’s remaining moist tropical forests. Nat Ecol Evol (2020).

A third of tropical forests already lost

Despite the importance of humid tropical forests for biodiversity, carbon storage and water cycling, the study found that only 10% of the remaining forests in this biome are protected legally. Human activities have deforested 33% of the biome, while a further 22% is degraded, with 13% still in good structural condition, but under threat from human activities.

Forest clearance between 2013 and 2019 was slowest in high FSII forests, probably as a result of their current remoteness. However, proposed mega-rail and road schemes in the Amazon and Congo would expand forest access, exposing them to rapid deforestation and degradation, which some experts warn could push tropical forests like the Amazon toward an irreversible tipping point.

“It is very important that we conserve the remaining forests that we have and facilitate restoration through natural forest regrowth on abandoned agricultural areas,” said Poorter. Studies like this one “can facilitate this [need] and put it on the policy agenda.”

Huge and ancient canopy trees like this one are home to many species and store a large amount of carbon. Image courtesy of A.J. Hansen.

Setting targets for 2050

This year may prove crucial for international policy on biodiversity, as stockholders assess global progress towards internationally agreed goals for 2020 and prepare to set new targets for the next decade and beyond. A draft text of the CBD’s post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework was released in January and the final policy document — which will set targets for the next 10 years and long-term goals for 2050 — is expected to be signed into effect at the UN Biodiversity Conference, postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Recent surveys have given the world an increasingly clear picture of the current state of the planet’s natural systems in 2020, and it is not a good one. According to the Fifth edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook, published this month, the world has failed to fully meet any of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets for 2020, which were set by the CBD as part of the revised Strategic Plan for Biodiversity in 2010. These failings underline the importance of setting clear, measurable, and effective future targets.

With new satellite imaging technologies, “The potential now exists to monitor all three elements of ecological integrity — structure, function, and composition — with Earth observations,” said Hansen. This gives governments, NGOs and international organizations the detailed information needed to set new targets for forest protection and restoration, taking into account forest canopy structure. “Ours is one of the few indices of [forest] integrity now available” for organizations like the CBD to utilize, he said.

“This study, authored by eminent experts, is very valuable for prioritizing and evaluating forest conservation in the humid tropics,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, who was not involved in the research. “Parties to the CBD are encouraged to make use of this research as they plan and implement forest conservation efforts in their countries — and also as they provide their inputs to the formulation of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.”

The authors praise local conservation heroes who have implemented conservation strategies at smaller scales, such as this rancher whose family has protected primary forests in the Orinoco River Grassland Plains in Colombia for nine generations. Image courtesy of A.J. Hansen.

Maintaining and expanding protections

The study makes some conservation recommendations, urging that nations “maintain protections, add new protections, mitigate deleterious human impacts, and restore forest structure,” said Hansen. These suggestions include new protections for 41% of the remaining forested area, active restoration in 7%, and reduction of human pressures in 19% of the biome.

Hansen expects Indigenous communities to be very important as stewards for conserving tropical humid forests, but a lack of published maps for Indigenous lands in many countries left the team unable to investigate this effect in their analysis. “My experience in the Amazon and the Choco region of Colombia is that some of the most important high FSII lands are on Indigenous-managed lands,” said Hansen.

“Countries are in need of technical and financial support to be able to meet their commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity,” and to “address multiple challenges of biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, and tackling climate change in a holistic manner,” said Mrema. “This [new] tool can take into account multiple factors to enable better setting of targets, and how and where to implement conservation and restoration actions for the most multiple benefits – for people, for climate and for biodiversity.”


Hansen, A.J., Burns, P., Ervin, J. et al. A policy-driven framework for conserving the best of Earth’s remaining moist tropical forestsNat Ecol Evol (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1274-7

Banner image: A forest in Gunung Halimun-Salak National Park in Indonesia. Structurally complex forests, with a mixture of large canopy trees, smaller trees and understory, harbor high levels of biodiversity and absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Image courtesy of CIFOR via Flickr (CC-BY NC-ND 2.0).

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