By Sharon Atieno

Despite almost half of the world’s humid tropical forests being considered of “high quality” only 6.5% of them have formal protections. Also, they are at significant risk of being lost, a study reveals.

The joint study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Wildlife Conservation Society identified significant omissions in the international forest conservation strategy .

With their low levels of human pressure, large trees and thick canopy vegetation, these forests act as key habitats for many plants and animals, which fosters biodiversity. They also help stabilize the climate worldwide by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The paper’s authors note where these high-quality forests are at risk and include a conservation framework that recommends ways to protect existing forests as well as restoring others.

Current global targets focus solely on forest size and fail to acknowledge the importance of forest quality that provide key services like carbon storage, prevention of disease transmission, and water provision, creating a critical gap in action to safeguard ecosystems essential for human and planetary well-being.

“Protecting, restoring and sustainably managing nature is fundamental to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals but we need more robust spatial data to help us to do so,” says UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner.

“By serving as a convener to bring together some of the world’s best scientists with governments, the United Nations is playing an important role in ensuring that this type of data and cutting-edge research is available to help countries plan and implement critical nature-based solutions.”

Collaborating with UNDP Country Offices and key stakeholders in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Indonesia, Peru, and Viet Nam, researchers mapped the location of high-quality forests using recently developed high-resolution maps of forest structure and human pressure across the global humid tropics.

The study, A policy-driven framework for conserving the best of Earth’s remaining moist tropical forests, released in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. reveals that of the Earth’s humid tropical forests, only half have high ecological quality, largely limited to the Amazon and Congo Basins. The vast majority of these forests have no formal protection and, given recent rates of loss, are at significant risk.

With the rapid disappearance of these ‘best of the last’ forests at stake, the paper provides a policy-driven framework for their conservation and restoration, recommending locations to maintain protections, add new protections, restore forest structure, and mitigate human pressure.

“Nature-based approaches are emerging as high-value opportunities to deliver on international commitments and benefit people and the planet. NASA is proud to support rigorous science to understand the Earth and help organizations apply it to inform protection of the world’s tropical forests,” said Lawrence Friedl, Director of NASA’s Applied Sciences Program.