Forests and biodiversity

What is biodiversity?

More than 10 million different species of animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms inhabit the Earth. They and the habitats in which they live represent the world's biological diversity, or biodiversity as it is often called. Humans use at least 40,000 species of plants and animals on a daily basis for food, shelter, clothing and medicinal needs.

Much of the global concern with deforestation focuses on the alarming loss of biodiversity. There is also considerable concern with the poverty of many forest dependent communities. Many poor communities around the world rely on local biodiversity for a range of essential services. These include materials for housing and clothing, food from a range of wildlife species and traditional medicines derived from local plants and animals.

The populations of developed nations also depend on biodiversity for their survival and quality of life. Close to 40 percent of the pharmaceuticals used in the United States are either based on, or synthesized from, natural compounds found in plants, animals or microorganisms.

The greatest value of biodiversity might still be unknown. Only a fraction of known species has been examined for potential medicinal, agricultural or industrial value. Nor do we fully understand how biodiversity contributes to the well-being of the larger global environment. And we are only just beginning to learn how biodiversity helps communities around the world satisfy their economic, dietary, health and cultural needs.

One thing is certain: the more we learn about biodiversity the more we realize how much the world depends on it. Yet whole species of plants, animals, fungi, and microscopic organisms are being lost at alarming rates.

Forest biodiversity

Forests are the most diverse ecosystems on land, because they hold the vast majority of the world's terrestrial species. Some rain forests are among the oldest ecosystems on Earth. Timber, pulpwood, firewood, fodder, meat, cash crops, fish and medicinal plants from the forest provide livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. But only a fraction of known species has been examined for potential medicinal, agricultural or industrial value.

A continuing threat

Forest biodiversity is threatened by rapid deforestation, forest fragmentation and degradation, hunting and the arrival of invasive species from other habitats. We are losing 12 million hectares of forest a year, much of it tropical rainforest with its unique and rich biodiversity.

How can we protect biodiversity?

One of the best ways to conserve forest biodiversity is to establish protected forest areas. But these areas must be of a certain size, or consist of a well-designed network of forest areas, to allow the local forest ecosystems to continue operating effectively. The forest surrounding the protected area must then be carefully managed so that it serves as a buffer zone. These surrounding forests also allow local communities to earn a livelihood without infringing on the protected forest.

There have been numerous efforts aimed at safeguarding the world's biodiversity by protecting species in areas outside their original habitats. For example, seeds of some of the most economically important trees are being conserved in seed centers and gene-banks as a way of protecting their genetic diversity. But a large number of forest species have seed that do not survive storage, and many species of animals and plant-life are hard to protect once removed from their ecosystems.

CIFOR's focus

Biodiversity will continue to change and it is impossible to protect everything, so we need to decide which species are critically important and how they can best be maintained. The challenge is to ensure that we do not focus only on the needs of developed nations and the world's economic elite. We must also recognize and examine the priorities of local people who depend on forests, especially in developing nations.

CIFOR is meeting this challenge by studying forest biodiversity and increasing the understanding of this unique resource in ways that accommodate both local and global forest values. It is also researching logging techniques that have a reduced impact on forests and biodiversity while still remaining profitable for logging companies.