A new alliance calls for a global agreement to protect primary forests

A new alliance calls for a global agreement to protect primary forests

A new international alliance is calling on world leaders to include explicit protection for primary forests as part of the Global Biodiversity Framework being negotiated at the UN’s biodiversity meetings (COP15) in Montreal this week.

The Primary Forest Alliance is calling for an immediate moratorium on industrial development in primary forests, defined as naturally regenerating forests that have never been industrially developed or logged. The Alliance represents organizations from around the world. It so far has over 100 signatories, including One Earth, the Pan-Amazonian Indigenous federation COICA, Stand.earth, the Sierra Club, NRDC, the Society for Conservation Biology, Patagonia, and many others.

Primary forests protect the most terrestrial species (over two-thirds of all terrestrial species) and the largest terrestrial carbon stocks and provide many other ecosystem services. Their protection is therefore essential to mitigate multiple overlapping crises from climate change to extinctions to freshwater access to pandemics. Only about 27 percent of the world’s forests are primary forests, and they are being destroyed at very high rates – at least 4.5 million hectares a year over the last thirty years (139 million hectares since 1990), though official statistics greatly underestimate the full extent of the loss. 

Delegates from around the world at COP15, also known as the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, are negotiating new international agreements – but so far, the text of these agreements does not include specific protection for primary forests.

Meanwhile, critical forest ecosystems are threatened all over the planet, from the Canadian Boreal to the Congo Basin and Amazonia to Indonesia.

Primary forests have been managed by Indigenous peoples around the world for thousands of years and are essential to Indigenous rights, culture, and livelihoods. Indigenous people and land defenders also face disproportionate violence due to ongoing colonialism and industrial extraction. The Primary Forest Alliance calls for immediate action to protect forest defenders and provide full financial support for impacted communities as part of a moratorium.

Governments have always argued available funding for conservation was limited. But we spend almost a trillion dollars each year subsidizing fossil fuels and timber extraction - and well over a trillion on environmentally harmful subsidies when additional sectors, such as industrial agriculture, mining, and unsustainable freshwater infrastructure, are included. The activities these subsidies support, in turn, generate huge social costs - from climate change to freshwater shortages to biodiversity loss - which total many trillions of dollars. 

Redirecting these harmful subsidies to primary forest protection would generate hundreds of billions of dollars for protected areas, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, providing environmentally beneficial economic alternatives to communities dependent on timber extraction and saving trillions in climate change and other social impacts.

Similarly, climate finance could also provide a very large boost to primary forests. Only a tiny fraction of climate funding - about 3% - currently goes to forests, and an even smaller amount goes to primary forest protection, despite the fact that primary forests contain store amounts of carbon, a fraction of which would cause catastrophic warming if released. Greatly scaling up climate change funding for primary forest protection would provide massive biodiversity and climate benefits.

Redirecting environmentally harmful subsidies and reallocating and scaling up climate finance could provide substantial funding for primary forests in the short term. The problem is not lack of funding; the problem is the political challenge of achieving this reallocation.

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