Conserving the World’s Remaining Intact Forests

By Michael Painter and David Wilkie
July 25, 2017

[This story was originally published at Mongabay on July 25, 2017.]

Intact forests are among the few places on earth where native trees and animals can fulfill their ecological roles outside the influence of industrial humankind. Some interpret “intact” to mean absent the influence of people, but people have lived within forests the world over for millennia and we are only beginning to understand how they have — and continue to — influence them.

A recent article in Science reviews plant domestication practices by pre-Columbian peoples in the Amazon, concluding that they continue to influence the composition of the forest we know today. Of the roughly 16,000 woody species the Science researchers identified within the Amazon forest, a mere 227 account for more than half of the total number of trees in the Amazon, a disproportionality that the authors refer to as “hyper-dominant.”

Pre-Columbian peoples domesticated roughly 10 percent of these 227 hyper-dominant species to some degree, and according to archaeological evidence, distributed them across the Amazon basin. They thus changed forest composition by enriching the forest with useful species and creating new landscapes for domesticated plants.

A Tacana woman harvesting a cacao pod in Bolivia. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz/WCS.

History has shown that people can live successfully in forests over long periods of time. Despite the massive demographic upheavals that have occurred as a result of agrarian, industrial, and digital revolutions, intact forests are still home to hunter-gatherers in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Such communities depend almost exclusively on the direct use of forest resources for food, fuel, fiber, and shelter.

Forests do not respond well when we try to simplify ecosystems by prioritizing some species over others or when we attempt to maximize yields or trade value. Societies that went down those paths were susceptible to ecological collapse, such as those suffered by the Classic Maya of Central America or the Polynesians of Easter Island. Enduring cultures have taken advantage of and worked to maintain the diversity of plant and animal species that comprise intact forest ecosystems.

The Tacana People of northwestern Bolivia are successfully managing the forests of their indigenous territory. Like other peoples who have successfully managed forest resources over the long term, their production strategy focuses on utilizing a diverse and widely dispersed resource base. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz / WCS.

Forest systems typically contain a large number of species but few representatives of any particular species, though soil conditions on occasion can produce near mono-cultures of palms and other trees, like Dipterocarps (Asian mahogany). In additional, the biomass and annual productivity of wildlife in forests is on average 1/10th that of grasslands

Given this, hunter-gatherers and farmer-foragers must have access to enough forest to allow most of it to lie fallow at any particular time, recovering from serial overuse. Today, forest societies that almost exclusively depend on the direct use of natural resources to meet their basic needs seldom exceed population densities of 1–2 people per square kilometer, and tend to change location from time to time to ensure that their search for food and other products will not permanently deplete an area of key resources.

A mobile lifestyle based on utilizing a diverse but diffuse cornucopia of forest resources strongly favors overlapping rights that secure use of different resources at different times of the year and as ecological conditions change. Because such systems do not fit easily within national models that emphasize exclusive state or individual rights to land and resources, it is not surprising that traditional peoples are among the most politically and economically marginalized and vulnerable people in the countries where they live.

“Conservationists must work with indigenous rights advocates to help traditional peoples continue (or resume) roles they have historically played as front-line stewards of their forests and our global patrimony.”

The world’s remaining intact forests benefit more from their isolation from commercial transport networks than purposeful and foresighted government policy. Elsewhere, forests have been transformed into individually owned farms, ranches, and plantations, which are often dedicated to a single commodity. Once a desired resource has been extracted, they become abandoned wastelands. Such is the fate of the forest after illegal gold mining in Amazonia and legal mountaintop removal for coal in Appalachia.

As the impacts of global climate change become more pronounced, forest functions like storing carbon, moderating temperatures, and maintaining regional rainfall will increase in value, and justifications for transforming these remaining intact forests will diminish. Conservationists must work with indigenous rights advocates to help traditional peoples continue (or resume) roles they have historically played as front-line stewards of their forests and our global patrimony.

Nonetheless, while intact forests can sustain dispersed populations, and limit the impacts of climate change, they may not be able to satisfy all the needs of growing rural communities for food and income, or meet the increasing aspirations of forest peoples who have freed themselves from extreme poverty. Addressing these needs requires us to rethink local land use planning and global relationships between urban centers and the hinterlands that supply them.

Fungi in Costa Rica. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for

For conservationists, this means we need to pay more attention to areas that have already been transformed. Historically, we have focused on improving livelihood options and building incentives for conservation by promoting sustainable forest use in the form of ecotourism, sustainable timber harvesting, and extraction of non-timber forest products. While these efforts have often been successful, they carry built-in limitations if our objective is to keep those ecosystems intact.

We must also build effective alliances with professionals in disciplines that include fish farming; agriculture; household economics; and the raising of pigs, goats, chickens and other “small stock.” While they have not historically been conservation partners, their expertise is essential if we are to increase the productivity of lands that have already been converted and reduce the pressure on the world’s remaining intact forests.

In altering the Earth to serve human kind we have already transformed 90 percent of the planet while reducing our capacity to address new challenges like climate change. We cannot solve our most pressing environmental and development problems by compromising the few areas that remain whole. Instead we must embrace our intact landscapes for the ecosystems they conserve and the communities they sustain.

Michael Painter is a senior technical advisor at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society. David Wilkie is WCS Executive Director of Conservation Measures and Communities.

Originally published at on July 25, 2017.



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Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society


WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.