‘A Geography of Hope’: New book spotlights incredible value of primary forests

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Leading biologists and social scientists from Conservation International and others highlight environmental and human benefits of these irreplaceable ecosystems — and call for their protection

A Geography of Hope: Saving Primary Forests illustrates the beauty, ecological importance and connection to humanity unique to these nearly untouched, “old-growth” forests. The limited edition book — the 24th in the Conservation Book Series — was launched today at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, by Conservation International (CI) and CEMEX.

There are a broad range of primary forests found across tropical, boreal and temperate climates worldwide. Despite their numerous benefits, they are under increased threat from industrial agriculture, mining, oil and gas extraction, industrial logging and infrastructure development. It is estimated that we have lost one-third of the world’s original forest cover, and of the remaining forest, only a third qualifies as primary forest and of that total, only 20 percent is protected.

The book’s authors make the case for prioritizing the conservation of primary forests in order to preserve their rich biodiversity and the natural services they provide — including storing carbon, providing freshwater and supporting the livelihoods of approximately 400 million people around the world. Primary forests also serve as a key source of seed stock that can be used for reforestation efforts.

“We are becoming increasingly aware that the remaining primary forests of our planet are incredibly important for us all. This is not just because they are the richest ecosystems for biodiversity, but also because they are an essential underpinning for long-term sustainability and human well-being,” said Russell Mittermeier, Executive Vice Chair of Conservation International and Chair of the IUCN Primates Specialist Group. “ The simple fact that tropical forests alone may provide 30 percent — and potentially as much as 50 percent — of the solution to global climate change is just one indicator of their enormous value. They are essential to maintaining freshwater flows for the planet as a whole, and are a last stronghold for the world’s remaining indigenous peoples.”

Protecting primary forests and their biodiversity is critical for securing the benefits these places provide people. Loss of biodiversity — particularly pollinator and seed disperser species — from human activity weakens overall forest health and resiliency to climate change.

Protecting the world’s remaining primary forests is crucial to delivering on the 2015 Paris Agreement, which emphasized the importance of maintaining ecosystem integrity in the fight against climate change.

“What is particularly noteworthy from a climate perspective is that, at least in Amazonia, just 1% of the tree species account for 50% of the carbon captured,” Mittermeier added. “These are mostly large, slow-growing hardwood species that are dispersed by animals like spider monkeys, large frugivorous birds and forest floor tortoises — the very animals that are the first to be hunted out. And these species are often the preferred targets for loggers. We need to recognize the interconnectivity of these different parts of a tropical forest, and do everything possible to avoid having short-sighted exploitation dramatically reduce the long-term value of the forests as a whole.”

Along with the benefit of storing carbon, all forests are responsible for providing fresh water to nearly one-third of the world’s largest cities — including New York and Rio de Janeiro, which get a significant portion of their drinking water from protected forests.

"What is particularly remarkable is how much freshwater these forests provide. Forests across our planet are estimated to filter high quality water for 50% - 3.5 billion people - of our global population,” said Leo Saenz, director of eco-hydrology at Conservation International. “Yet, forests continue to be threatened by cattle grazing, agriculture, increasing urbanization and mining activities. Protecting primary forests through concerted action should thus be a prerequisite for the long term — as they produce the climate resilient supply of clean freshwater resources upon which we humans and the highly threatened Earth’s freshwater biodiversity depends.”

With the collective global benefits primary forests provide, they are also critical for social and cultural reasons. Along with directly providing the livelihoods of 400 million people, the cultures of many indigenous peoples are inextricably linked to the forests. The role of forests is so strong in the lives of many indigenous peoples — from Canada to Brazil to Cambodia — that they have made incredible contributions to protect primary forests.

"Primary Forests are the home of many indigenous peoples around the globe and these forests are intrinsically linked to their cultural identity and spiritual values and have been sustained by indigenous peoples over millennia,” said Kristen Walker, Managing Director and Senior Vice President, The Center for Environment and Peace. “By supporting indigenous peoples in ensuring their rights and the management of their traditional lands and territories in primary forests, we are ensuring a better future for our planet."

The conclusion the authors make is that protecting primary forests is not an insurmountable challenge. However, it is one that requires urgent action from communities, governments and business — namely, prioritizing not only the creation and management of protected areas for primary forests, but also financing and creating the investment solutions needed to ensure that protected areas are successful.

For more on Conservation International, visit: http://www.conservation.org/what/pages/forests.aspx

About Conservation International

Conservation International (CI) uses an innovative blend of science, policy and partnerships to protect the nature people rely on for food, fresh water, and livelihoods. Founded in 1987, CI works in more than 30 countries on six continents to ensure a healthy, prosperous planet that supports us all. Learn more about CI and follow our work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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Kevin Connor
Conservation International
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