The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by countries in 2015 are “integrated and indivisible”. Progress towards sustainable agriculture, food security and sustainable forest management, core elements of the SDGs, should be made simultaneously.
Forests, which cover 31% of the world’s land area, play a crucial role in recycling oxygen and converting sunlight into the biochemical energy that maintains terrestrial life. They also help to maintain water catchments, and store carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming. They are home to about two-thirds of the world’s land-based species of plants and animals, and to millions of people who depend on them for their sustenance, fuel and natural medicines.
In the course of history, humans have cleared as much as 30% of the Earth’s original forest cover. Much of that clearance has occurred in the past 50 years, and the net rate of loss is currently around five million hectares per year. This figure only reflects the loss of tree cover and does not take into account the loss of forest health and biodiversity that may be associated with forest clearance and subsequent replanting or regrowth. In 1997 the World Resources Institute estimated that only 20% of the world’s original forests remained in large tracts of undisturbed forest, most of them in Russia, Canada and Brazil.
The main threats to forests are logging for timber, pulp and paper, and clearance for agriculture including meat ranching. Climate change is also a major threat because it can increase drought and forest fires. The loss of rainforests is of particular concern because they are home to more than half of the planet’s species. Some gains have been made in recent years; for example, between 2002 and 2006 Brazil tripled the area of its protected land, and deforestation rates dropped up to 60%. But there is still much work to be done.
See also Biodiversity.