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To Conserve Biodiversity, We Must Protect Our Forests | SDG Knowledge Hub

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By Mette Løyche Wilkie and Malgorzata Buszko-Briggs

As we mark the International Day of Biological Diversity on 22 May, we need to remember that conserving the planet’s biodiversity also means protecting its forests.

Although they cover just over 30% of the global land area, forests are home to the vast majority of the terrestrial plant and animal species known to science. That includes 80% of amphibian species, 75% of bird species and 68% of mammal species.

Forests and woodlands themselves comprise over 60,000 tree species.

Mangrove forests also serve as a vital link to our marine biodiversity, providing breeding grounds and nurseries for numerous species of fish and shellfish.

Why is this forest biodiversity so vital?

In both low- and high-income countries, communities that live within forests rely directly on forest biodiversity for their lives and livelihoods, using products derived from forest resources for food, fodder, shelter, energy, medicine, and income generation.

Forest biodiversity benefits much of humanity as a whole through its role in the carbon, water, and nutrient cycles and through its links with food production, including seed dispersal and crop pollination.

Nevertheless, forests and their biodiversity are under threat from deforestation and forest degradation, which still continue at alarming rates.

An estimated 420 million hectares of forest – the area of India and Portugal combined – have been lost to deforestation since 1990. We continue to lose about 10 million hectares of forest each year, an area about twice the size of Costa Rica.

Clearly, deforestation negatively affects biodiversity, people, and the planet. It also threatens the achievement of the SDGs, including those seeking to protect life on land, eliminate poverty and hunger, and promote climate action and health.

As we work to build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic, let us not forget that deforestation and forest fragmentation often result in greater contact between humans, livestock, and wildlife, which in turn increases the risks of zoonotic diseases.

For all these reasons, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called on the global community to “turn the tide on deforestation.” We must halt deforestation once and for all and restore ecosystems that are already damaged. In so doing, we will help achieve climate goals while conserving our precious biodiversity and the many benefits it provides.

Last month, through the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), 15 international organizations working on forests issued a joint statement highlighting the disturbing realities of the impacts of deforestation and outlining the opportunities – and actions needed – to stop it. Chaired by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the CPF includes UN agencies, four conventions, and other organizations with substantial programmes on forests.

So how can we halt deforestation?

The CPF underscores that as agricultural expansion accounts for about 73% of tropical deforestation, we need to meet the increasing demand for agricultural products while limiting the expansion of agriculture into forest areas.

We know that feeding a growing world population and halting deforestation are not mutually exclusive. To achieve these two goals simultaneously, countries need to focus on sustainable production practices, agroforestry, and more balanced land-use planning.

We need to restore the productivity of degraded agricultural lands, reduce food loss and waste, and educate consumers. The public and private sectors also need to step up their commitments to zero deforestation.

The CPF also warns that, unless we work to prevent them, damaging forest fires could become one of the most important accelerators of deforestation.

An average of 76 million hectares are affected by forest fires each year. A mutually reinforcing cycle of climate change and wildfire is emerging, with negative impacts on biodiversity, ecological services, human well-being and livelihoods, and national economies.

We need to invest in wildfire prevention and integrated fire management in order to be able to prevent extreme wildfires and limit their consequences.

Ensuring the legality of timber production and trade, and strengthening forest governance, are also crucial for tackling deforestation.

To achieve these goals, we need to reform agricultural subsidies, strengthen forest governance, and improve tenure rights. We need to invest money – public and private – to support forest restoration and the conservation and sustainable use of forests. And we must involve all stakeholders, including Indigenous Peoples that manage approximately 28% of the world’s land surface, local communities, women, and young people.

Global partnerships and cooperation are crucial. The CPF will continue to work together to scale up global ambitions to stop deforestation and meet the SDGs and the UN Global Forest Goals.

As we enter the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, we have the opportunity to turn the tide on deforestation and conserve our biodiversity. Let us seize it.

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By Mette Løyche Wilkie, Chair of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, and Director, Forestry Division, FAO, and Malgorzata Buszko-Briggs, Senior Forestry Officer, FAO

The Collaborative Partnership on Forests comprises the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), Global Environment Facility (GEF), International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), and the World Bank.

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