Global tropical primary forest cover continued to decline unabated in 2022

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Context: Tropical areas lost 4.1 million hectares of forest cover – equivalent to losing an area of 11 football fields per minute – in 2022, new research quoted by the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Global Forest Watch has said.  

Importance of Forest 

Forests are critical ecosystems for fighting climate change, supporting livelihoods and protecting biodiversity.

  • Climate:
    • As the world faces a “final warning” on the climate crisis, reducing deforestation is one of the most cost-effective land-based measures to mitigate climate change
    • Forests are both a source and a sink for carbon.
  • Human well-being: 
    • Some 1.6 billion people, including nearly 70 million Indigenous Peoples, rely on forest resources for their livelihoods. 
    • Deforestation, especially in the tropics, also impacts local temperatures and rainfall which compounds the local effects of global climate change, with consequences for human health and agricultural productivity.
  • Biodiversity:
    • Forests harbor the most biodiversity of any ecosystem on Earth. 

Primary Forests

Primary forests are forests that are: 

  1. Largely undisturbed by industrial-scale land uses and infrastructure such as logging, mining and dams and roads.
  2. The result of ecological and evolutionary processes including the full range of successional stages over time and with natural disturbance processes operating within historic bounds.
  3. More likely to possess the full complement of their evolved, characteristic plant and animal species with few if any exotics.
  4. Dominated by a largely continuous tree canopy cover and have unpolluted soil and water.

Primary forests are some of the densest, wildest and most ecologically significant forests on Earth. They span the globe, from the snow-locked boreal region to the steamy tropics, though 75% of them can be found in just seven countries (Brazil, Bolivia, DRC, Ghana etc.).  According to the University of Maryland, primary forest cover loss in tropical areas in 2022 was 10% more than in 2021.


Benefits of Primary Forests 

  • These forests are major strongholds for biodiversity and include the planet’s most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems.
  • They provide essential climate change mitigation and adaptation, freshwater, and other ecosystem service benefits. 
  • They are also critically important for livelihoods and for cultural and spiritual reasons and are home for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities. 

Tropic Primary Forest vs intact forest landscapes (IFLs)

Both terms indicate a forest with no significant disturbances in recent record due to human activity.But while primary forests refer to areas of forest having reached the final stage of succession, IFLs encompass a broader patchwork of undisturbed areas. Within the boundary of an IFL you might find younger forests, clearings and areas of rock or ice in addition to primary forests. However, these younger patches must have been caused by natural disturbance patterns like floods or wildfire, Human-caused clearings fragment and degrade IFLs.

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Need to protect Primary Forest 

  • Primary forests are incredibly carbon rich. It is estimated that tropical primary forests alone store over 141 billion tonnes of carbon.
    • Once a forest reaches primary status it can continue to sequester carbon for centuries
    • Clearing these forests releases the stored carbon and also reduces the capacity of them to sequester more carbon in the future.
  • The later successional stages also tend to have higher levels of biodiversity.
    • The lack of human interference allows for ecological niches to flourish naturally, creating endemic species forming complex species interactions
  • Preserving these forests also preserves cultural diversity, ensuring that traditional, indigenous ways of life are not disrupted.
  • Primary forest loss is almost irreversible in nature: even if the green cover regrows, a secondary forest is unlikely to match the extent of biodiversity and carbon sequestering capabilities of a primary forest.
  • Primary forests can take decades and even centuries to return to their undisturbed state, whatever we lose now, we may not see again in this century. 
  • Loss of primary forest will have an adverse impact on the global climate e.g.,
    • Forest loss in the Amazon basin not only affects carbon cycle but also regional rainfall. If tipping point is crossed, the variation can convert most of the ecosystem into a savanna.
    • Deforestation in the Amazon region can disrupt rainfall patterns downwind and may be linked to the drought and fire in Bolivia. Deforestation also affects the climate in ways other than through the global carbon cycle.
  • Areas of mature rainforest are important for biodiversity, carbon storage and regulating regional and local climate effects.
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Gobal Efforts

Global Pledge at COP-26

  • During the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, heads of 145 countries pledged to increase the efforts to combat deforestation with a goal to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030.
  • A $500 million agreement was signed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2021, in Glasgow, to protect the Democratic Republic of Congo’s forests, but it is yet to have an impact on the deforestation rate in the country.

Global Forest Watch 

WRI measures progress on two goals – 

  • Ending deforestation by 2030
  • Restoring 350 million hectares (Mha) of lost and degraded forests by 2030 – that represents multiple global forest pledges.


REDD+ is a climate change mitigation solution developed by Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

  • REDD+ goes beyond simply deforestation and forest degradation and includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks
  • The framework is commonly referred to as the Warsaw Framework for REDD+ (WFR) adopted at COP 19 in Warsaw and provides the complete methodological and financing guidance for the implementation of REDD+ activities. 
  • REDD+ is also recognized in Article 5 of the Paris Agreement.

Current Status of Primary Forest 

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Global Forest Watch, which is backed by the nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI) and draws on forest data collected by the University of Maryland, revealed that about 41,000 sq km (16,000 sq miles) of tropical rainforest was lost in 2022.

  • Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the two countries with the most tropical forest cover, and both registered losses of this resource in 2022.
    • The Democratic Republic of Congo lost more than half a million hectares of primary forest cover in 2022.
  • Ghana and Bolivia also rapidly lost their primary forest cover. 
  • Indonesia and Malaysia managed to keep their primary forest cover loss to record-low levels in 2022.
  • In 2022, the global deforestation rate was 3.1% lower than the baseline from 2018-2020, it was still over one million hectares above the level needed. This puts the world off track to meet the 2030 goal.

Despite registering some gains, the overall change in tree cover in the last 20 years was a net loss of 100 Mha. This means that we are still losing forests and not restoring them at the required rate.

Current status in India 

  • According to Global Forest Watch, India lost 43.9 thousand hectares of humid primary forest between 2021 and 2022, which accounts of 17% of the country’s total tree cover loss in the period. The total tree cover loss in India between 2021 and 2022 was 255 thousand hectares.
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Reasons for loss of Primary Forest 

  • As the population of the country grows, there is more demand for food, which in turn is leading to an expansion of area under agriculture and encroachment of land hosting primary forests
  • Primary forests are burned for short-term cultivation and then left fallow for regeneration of soil nutrients. However, increased demand for food has shortened the fallow periods, destroying more forests.

Global Initiatives 

  • To curb deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia a logging moratorium, efforts to restore peatlands, and corporate commitments to exclude palm oil suppliers linked to deforestation appear to be effective.
  • The European Union this year delivered a push in the right direction, adopting a law that bans the import of a series of products that contribute to deforestation in tropical countries. 
  • China, the world’s largest importer of many agricultural commodities, has recently committed to cracking down on illegal deforestation linked to its trade with Brazil.

Steps taken by India 

  • Forest Rights Act of 2006, for instance, enables recognition of Community Forest Resource rights for conserving, protecting, regenerating and sustainably utilizing forest resources.
  • Estimates by WRI India show that between 2011 and 2016, India allocated more than 16 billion USD to improving forest and tree cover through public financing.
  • As a measure to balance environment and development demands on forest lands, Indian law requires a compensatory afforestation payment when forest lands are diverted to development projects.

What can be done 

  • To meet the target of restoring 350 Mha of forests globally by 2030, the world needs to increase tree cover by 22 Mha per year, between 2021 and 2030. 
  • To achieve zero deforestation by 2030, global deforestation had to be reduced by 10% each year.
  • Protected areas, indigenous, and community conservation are effective mechanisms for maintaining primary forests. National and international forest policies should prioritize the conservation of our planet’s remaining primary forests.

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