Published online 22 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.505

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Attempts to preserve world's forests falling short

International targets will not be met by 2010.

WoodlandLess than 10% of the world's forests are protected.Wikimedia/S. Doronenko

Sufficient efforts are not being made to protect 10% of the world's forests by 2010 — as agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — according to a new analysis1.

The study is the first attempt to work out how much of the globe's 20 major types of forest are safeguarded. It shows that only 7.7% are currently protected according to categories established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), headquartered in Gland, Switzerland. The work is based on the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization's definition of a forest — that is, an area of land more than 0.5 hectares in size with more than 10% canopy cover.

"According to our analysis, the CBD targets will not be met," says Neil Burgess, a conservation scientist at the University of Cambridge, UK, and one of the study's authors.

The CBD target of 10% was agreed by 191 countries — excluding the United States — in 2004. Although 7.7% is "reasonably good", Burgess says, CBD signatories agreed to 10% "because it was thought this level of protection was necessary for biodiversity conservation". He says that it is now recognized that protecting forests is also important for efforts to stabilize climate change, "so if we are failing to meet the target it could be even worse for climate stabilization than for biodiversity".

A varied picture

The study found that the level of protection offered to different forest types varied greatly, ranging from a low of just 3.2% for the world's temperate freshwater swamp forests to a high of 28% for temperate broadleaf evergreen forests.

The analysis also looked at the level of protection afforded to forests in the world's 825 ecoregions, defined by the conservation group WWF as areas containing geographically distinct groups of natural communities that share many of their species and similar environmental conditions, and interact ecologically in ways that are important for their long-term survival. The authors also include the 34 'biodiversity hotspots' identified by Conservation International (CI), a non-governmental organization based in Arlington, Virginia.

Breaking down the forest types into ecoregions is useful because "the rainforests in Brazil contain different species from those in the Congo", says Burgess.

“According to our analysis, the CBD targets will not be met.”

Neil Burgess
University of Cambridge

The study found that 65% of the ecoregions have less than 10% of their forests protected. The highest level of protection — with more than 50% of forest protected — was found in ecoregions in parts of the Amazon, southeast Asia and Alaska.

The team also established that, on average, 10.2% of the forests in areas designated as biodiversity hotspots by the CI were protected. But some areas were better protected than others — for example, about 7% of the Guinean forests of West Africa are protected, whereas 17.7% of the forests in the mountains of Central Asia are protected.

Burgess says it is "good news" that many of the most important areas for biodiversity are being protected at a level above the 10% target.

Meaningful target?

The group used data from an existing map, published in 2000, of global forest cover from the United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, UK. The researchers updated this map using satellite data collected in 2005.

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John Healy, a forest ecologist at the University of Wales, Bangor, says that the study is important because it looks at forest protection in ecoregions and by forest type, rather than just total forest cover. "They have carried out the study in a far more biogeographically and ecologically meaningful way [than previous studies]", he says.

But, he adds, "The reality is we don't know whether the protection status is being enforced on the ground."

Lauren Coad, a forest scientist at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, UK, and another of the paper's authors, says that the 10% target is "arbitrary but politically important".

"People need a target to focus," she says. "It can galvanize them into action." 

  • References

    1. Schmitt, C. B. et al. Biol. Conserv. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2009.04.012 (2009).
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