As the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity 2011–2020 comes to a close and countries prepare to adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, this edition of The State of the World’s Forests (SOFO) takes the opportunity to examine the contributions of forests, and of the people who use and manage them, to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. It is intended to complement The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in February 2019; the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the draft of which was released in 2019 and the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), released in 2020.
Forests harbour most of Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity. The conservation of the world’s biodiversity is thus utterly dependent on the way in which we interact with and use the world’s forests. Forests provide habitats for 80 percent of amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species and 68 percent of mammal species. About 60 percent of all vascular plants are found in tropical forests. Mangroves provide breeding grounds and nurseries for numerous species of fish and shellfish and help trap sediments that might otherwise adversely affect seagrass beds and coral reefs, which are habitats for many more marine species.
Forests cover 31 percent of the global land area but are not equally distributed around the globe. Almost half the forest area is relatively intact, and more than one-third is primary forest. More than half of the world’s forests are found in only five countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Russian Federation and United States of America). Almost half the forest area (49 percent) is relatively intact, while 9 percent is found in fragments with little or no connectivity. Tropical rainforests and boreal coniferous forests are the least fragmented, whereas subtropical dry forest and temperate oceanic forests are among the most fragmented. Roughly 80 percent of the world’s forest area is found in patches larger than 1 million hectares. The remaining 20 percent is located in more than 34 million patches across the world – the vast majority less than 1 000 hectares in size.
More than one-third (34 percent) of the world’s forests are primary forests, defined as naturally regenerated forests of native tree species where there are no clearly visible indications of human activity and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.
Deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates, which contributes significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Since 1990, it is estimated that some 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses, although the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past three decades. Between 2015 and 2020, the rate of deforestation was estimated at 10 million hectares per year, down from 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s. The area of primary forest worldwide has decreased by over 80 million hectares since 1990. More than 100 million hectares of forests are adversely affected by forest ﬁres, pests, diseases, invasive species drought and adverse weather events.
Agricultural expansion continues to be the main driver of deforestation and forest fragmentation and the associated loss of forest biodiversity. Large-scale commercial agriculture (primarily cattle ranching and cultivation of soya bean and oil palm) accounted for 40 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010, and local subsistence agriculture for another 33 percent. Ironically, the resilience of human food systems and their capacity to adapt to future change depends on that very biodiversity – including dryland-adapted shrub and tree species that help combat desertification, forest-dwelling insects, bats and bird species that pollinate crops, trees with extensive root systems in mountain ecosystems that prevent soil erosion, and mangrove species that provide resilience against flooding in coastal areas. With climate change exacerbating the risks to food systems, the role of forests in capturing and storing carbon and mitigating climate change is of ever-increasing importance for the agricultural sector.
The net loss of forest area decreased from 7.8 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 4.7 million hectares per year during 2010–2020. While deforestation is taking place in some areas, new forests are being established through natural expansion or deliberate efforts in others. As a result, the net loss of forest area is less than the rate of deforestation. In absolute terms, the global forest area decreased by 178 million hectares between 1990 and 2020, which is an area about the size of Libya.
The biodiversity of forests varies considerably according to factors such as forest type, geography, climate and soils – in addition to human use. Most forest habitats in temperate regions support relatively few animal and tree species and species that tend to have large geographical distributions, while the montane forests of Africa, South America and Southeast Asia and lowland forests of Australia, coastal Brazil, the Caribbean islands, Central America and insular Southeast Asia have many species with small geographical distributions. Areas with dense human populations and intense agricultural land use, such as Europe, parts of Bangladesh, China, India and North America, are less intact in terms of their biodiversity. Northern Africa, southern Australia, coastal Brazil, Madagascar and South Africa, are also identified as areas with striking losses in biodiversity intactness.
Progress on preventing the extinction of known threatened species and improving their conservation status has been slow. More than 60 000 different tree species are known, more than 20 000 of which have been included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, and more than 8 000 of these are assessed as globally threatened (Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable). More than 1 400 tree species are assessed as critically endangered and in urgent need of conservation action. Some 8 percent of assessed forest plants, 5 percent of forest animals and 5 percent of fungi found in forests are currently listed as critically endangered.
The forest-specialist index, based on 455 monitored populations of 268 forest mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds, fell by 53 percent between 1970 and 2014, an annual rate of decline of 1.7 percent. This highlights the increased risk of these species becoming vulnerable to extinction.
On a positive note, the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization has been ratified by 122 contracting Parties (an increase of 74 percent from 2016) and 146 Parties have ratified the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
All people depend upon forests and their biodiversity, some more than others. Forests provide more than 86 million green jobs and support the livelihoods of many more people. An estimated 880 million people worldwide spend part of their time collecting fuelwood or producing charcoal, many of them women. Human populations tend to be low in areas of low-income countries with high forest cover and high forest biodiversity, but poverty rates in these areas tend to be high. Some 252 million people living in forests and savannahs have incomes of less than USD 1.25 per day.
Feeding humanity and conserving and sustainably using ecosystems are complementary and closely interdependent goals. Forests supply water, mitigate climate change and provide habitats for many pollinators, which are essential for sustainable food production.It is estimated that 75 percent of the world’s leading food crops, representing 35 percent of global food production, benefit from animal pollination for fruit, vegetable or seed production.
Worldwide, around 1 billion people depend to some extent on wild foods such as wild meat, edible insects, edible plant products, mushrooms and fish, which often contain high levels of key micronutrients. The value of forest foods as a nutritional resource is not limited to low- and middle-income countries; more than 100 million people in the European Union (EU) regularly consume wild food. Some 2.4 billion people – in both urban and rural settings – use wood-based energy for cooking.
Human health and well-being are closely associated with forests. More than 28 000 plant species are currently recorded as being of medicinal use and many of them are found in forest ecosystems. Visits to forest environments can have positive impacts on human physical and mental health and many people have a deep spiritual relationship to forests. Yet, forests also pose health risks. Forest-associated diseases include malaria, Chagas disease (also known as American trypanosomiasis), African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), leishmaniasis, Lyme disease, HIV and Ebola. The majority of new infectious diseases affecting humans, including the SARS-CoV2 virus that caused the current COVID-19 pandemic, are zoonotic and their emergence may be linked to habitat loss due to forest area change and the expansion of human populations into forest areas, which both increase human exposure to wildlife.
Solutions that balance conservation and sustainable use of forest biodiversity are critical – and possible. Not all human impacts on biodiversity are negative, as shown by the many concrete examples in this publication of recent successful initiatives to manage, conserve, restore and sustainably use forest biodiversity.
Actions to combat deforestation and illegal logging have gathered pace over the past decade – as have international agreements and results-based payments. So far, seven countries have reported reduced deforestation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and countries are now accessing payments based on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation from the Green Climate Fund and similar financing mechanisms. Efforts to address illegal logging are spearheaded by trade regulations in consumer countries that require importers to demonstrate that timber has been harvested legally. Many tropical timber-producing countries are making corresponding efforts to strengthen legal compliance and verification. Fifteen of them are developing national systems to assure legality of timber operations under the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade mechanism. As part of this mechanism, countries are required to also implement measures to prevent illegal hunting.
Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 (to protect at least 17 percent of terrestrial area by 2020) has been exceeded for forest ecosystems as a whole. However, protected areas alone are not sufficient to conserve biodiversity. Globally, 18 percent of the world’s forest area, or more than 700 million hectares, fall within legally established protected areas such as national parks, conservation areas and game reserves (IUCN categories I–IV). However, these areas are not yet fully representative of the diversity of forest ecosystems. A special study conducted for SOFO 2020 on trends in protected forest area by global ecological zones (GEZs) between 1992 and 2015 found that more than 30 percent of tropical rainforests, subtropical dry forests and temperate oceanic forests were within legally protected areas (IUCN categories I–VI) in 2015. The study also found that subtropical humid forest, temperate steppe and boreal coniferous forest should be given priority in future decisions to establish new protected areas since less than 10 percent of these forests are currently protected. Areas with high values for both biodiversity significance and intactness, for example the northern Andes and Central America, southeastern Brazil, parts of the Congo Basin, southern Japan, the Himalayas and various parts of Southeast Asia and New Guinea, should likewise be given high priority.
Limited progress has been made to date on classifying specific forest areas as other effective area-based conservation measures, but guidance on this category is being developed and has significant potential for forests.
Aichi Biodiversity Target 7 (by 2020, areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry are managed sustainably, ensuring conservation) has not been met for forests, but the management of the world’s forests is improving.The area of forest under long-term management plans has increased significantly in the past 30 years to an estimated 2.05 billion hectares in 2020, equivalent to 54 percent of the global forest area.
Current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The world’s biodiversity underpins life on Earth, but despite some positive trends, the loss of biodiversity continues at a rapid rate. Transformational change is needed in the way we manage our forests and their biodiversity, produce and consume our food and interact with nature. It is imperative that we decouple environmental degradation and unsustainable resource use from economic growth and associated production and consumption patterns and that land-use decisions take the true value of forests into account.
Ensuring positive outcomes for both biodiversity and people requires a careful balance between conservation goals and demands for resources that support livelihoods. There is an urgent need to ensure that biodiversity conservation be mainstreamed into forest management practices in all forest types. To do so, a realistic balance must be struck between conservation goals and local needs and demands for resources that support livelihoods, food security and human well-being. This requires effective governance; policy alignment between sectors and administrative levels; land-tenure security; respect for the rights and knowledge of local communities and indigenous peoples; and enhanced capacity for monitoring of biodiversity outcomes. It also requires innovative financing modalities.
We need to transform our food systems to halt deforestation and the loss of biodiversity. The biggest transformational change is needed in the way in which we produce and consume food. We must move away from the current situation where the demand for food is resulting in inappropriate agricultural practices that drive large-scale conversion of forests to agricultural production and the loss of forest-related biodiversity. Adopting agroforestry and sustainable production practices, restoring the productivity of degraded agricultural lands, embracing healthier diets and reducing food loss and waste are all actions that urgently need to be scaled up. Agribusinesses must meet their commitments to deforestation-free commodity chains, and companies that have not made zero-deforestation commitments should do so. Commodity investors should adopt business models that are environmentally and socially responsible. These actions will, in many cases, require a revision of current policies – in particular fiscal policies – and regulatory frameworks.
Large-scale forest restoration is needed to meet the SDGs and to prevent, halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity. While 61 countries have, together, pledged to restore 170 million hectares of degraded forest lands under the Bonn Challenge, progress to date is slow. Forest restoration, when implemented appropriately, helps restore habitats and ecosystems, create jobs and income and is an effective nature-based solution to climate change. The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, announced in March 2019, aims to accelerate ecosystem restoration action worldwide.
Forests are increasingly recognized for their role as a nature-based solution to many sustainable development challenges, as manifest in strengthened political will and a series of commitments to reduce rates of deforestation and to restore degraded forest ecosystems. We must build on this momentum to catalyse bold actions to prevent, halt and reverse the loss of forests and their biodiversity, for the benefit of current and future generations.