By Chelsea Harvey
The world’s natural places are disappearing at a galloping clip, says a new study, released Friday in the journal Science Advances. It suggests that more than 7 percent of Earth’s natural, intact forest landscapes have been lost since 2000 — and these ecosystems may be in danger of disappearing entirely from at least 19 countries in the next 60 years.
These landscapes represent some of “the last portions of the Earth that are not significantly affected by human influence,” said Lars Laestadius, a forest expert, consultant on natural resources policy and co-author of the new study. “As we lose these, we lose something that is bigger than ourselves.”
The study defines “intact forest landscapes” as areas greater than 500 square kilometers, or 193 square miles, containing a mosaic of forests and other associated ecosystems, such as plains or wetlands. The key is that these areas must be undisturbed by human activities — they can’t be fragmented by roads or deforestation or other industrial operations. Once that happens, the ecosystems cease to be considered “intact.” And as the new study indicates, this is happening more and more frequently around the world.
This research examines the impact of forest management regimes, with various degrees of restriction, on forest conservation in a dry deciduous Indian forest landscape. Forest change is mapped using Landsat satellite images from 1977, 1990, 1999, and 2011. The landscape studied has lost 1478 km2 of dense forest cover between 1977 and 2011, with a maximum loss of 1002 km2 of dense forest between 1977 and 1990. The number of protected forest areas has increased, concomitant with an increase in restrictions on forest access and use outside protected areas. Interviews with residents of 20 randomly selected villages indicate that in the absence of alternatives, rather than reducing their dependence on forests, communities appear to shift their use to other, less protected patches of forest. Pressure shifts seem to be taking place as a consequence of increasing protection, from within protected areas to forests outside, leading to the creation of protected but isolated forest islands within a matrix of overall deforestation, and increased conflict between local residents and forest managers. A broader landscape vision for forest management needs to be developed, that involves local communities with forest protection and enables their decision-making on forest management outside strict protected areas.