Primary Forests



Primary (“old growth”) forests are unique and irreplaceable ecosystems, essential to solving both the climate change and species extinction crises, and critical to human well-being around the world.

But we are losing millions of hectares of primary forest every year: we are clearing them and replacing them with industrial crops, we are degrading and fragmenting them through logging – and in some cases we are even turning them into wood chips and burning them as biofuels!  

We are running out of time to avoid catastrophic climate change and address an accelerating extinction crisis. Industrial activity has not proven sustainable in primary forests, even with best practices: we urgently need to protect what’s left!

Photo: Jaime Rojo



Earth’s spectacular primary forests (“old growth” forests) are irreplaceable ecosystems, unique places where nature’s ecosystem services are highly concentrated. They provide habitat for the greatest number of terrestrial and freshwater species, including many endangered species, they store vast amounts of carbon, they provide the highest quality freshwater, they provide livelihoods to local communities and they are the homelands of Indigenous Peoples. In short, primary forests are critical to addressing many of our most urgent environmental and social problems. We can’t avoid catastrophic climate change or stop the global extinction crisis unless we protect primary forests – they are essential life-support systems

But they are going fast. We’ve already lost over a third of the planet’s forests and less than a third of what remains is primary. And we continue to lose millions of hectares of primary forest each year. We simply have not succeeded in making industrial activity – including logging – sustainable in primary forests, even with best practices. In some instances primary forests are even being converted to wood chips and burned as biofuels.

We need to stop the destruction, degradation and fragmentation of Earth’s remaining primary forests if we want to maintain a livable planet. 

We also need to restore degraded forests so that they recover their primary forest values over time, and we need to regenerate forests where they have been cleared. Primary forests, even in small patches, are critical for regenerating forests as they provide the seed banks and the seed dispersers to bring the forest back.

But we are running out of time. Species continue to go extinct at high rates, wildlife populations are collapsing and we may only have about ten years of emissions left at current rates to avoid catastrophic warming.

We need to act now! We need to protect primary forests, we need to restore degraded forests and we need to bring back the forest where it has been cleared, and we need to start right away! 

Current Initiatives

Wild Heritage is proud to serve as the secretariat for IntAct: International Action for Primary Forests, a coalition of over 100 organizations that have signed the IntAct Statement of Principes and are working to prioritize primary forest conservation around the world. Please visit the IntAct website for more information and please watch our video below!


Wild Heritage Executive Director Cyril Kormos is working as a member of the IUCN Primary Forest Task Team to draft a primary forest policy that will guide IUCN’s 1,300 organizational members and 13,000 volunteer IUCN Commission experts in their work. The policy is due out in 2019. Please see:

Wild Heritage advocates for making primary forests a key focus area in the work of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). 


Never before has the CBD recognized the critical importance of primary forests and ecosystem integrity in its decisions. But it does now!! 

See decisions 14/5 and 14/30 here and excerpts below:

Decision 14/5 calls for strengthening “ecosystem integrity for the conservation of natural ecosystems” and encourages Parties “to integrate climate change issues and related national priorities into national biodiversity strategies and action plans and to integrate biodiversity and ecosystem integrity considerations into national policies, strategies and plans on climate change, such as nationally determined contributions, as appropriate, and national climate change adaptation planning, in their capacity as national instruments for the prioritization of actions for mitigation and adaptation. Decision 14/5 also calls on the Executive Secretary of the Convention “to develop targeted messaging on how biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, functions and services contribute to tackle the challenges of climate change”.

Decision 14/30 recognizes “the efforts made to improve the consistency of reporting on national data on primary forest area reported under the Global Forest Resources Assessment of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, considering the exceptional importance of primary forest for biodiversity conservation,” and the need achieve forest-related Aichi Biodiversity Targets, “in a mutually supportive manner, primarily with regard to (a) the reduction of deforestation and forest degradation, (b) forest restoration and (c) the urgent necessity to avoid major fragmentation, damage and loss of primary forests of the planet;

See also papers from the Subsidiary Body on Implementation in 2018:

Wild Heritage is working with partners to raise awareness of the importance of primary forests in the climate convention. See the text on primary forest in the Climate Action Network (CAN) position paper on Forest and Land Restoration and the Climate Land and Rights Alliance’s (CLARA) new report highlighting the importance of primary forests for climate mitigation. CAN and CLARA are both influential NGO networks operating within the UNFCCC – CAN has over 1,000 organizational members.


See the IntAct: International Action on Primary Forests Video!


Primary Forest FAQs

What is a primary forest?

A primary forest is a forest that is the result of natural processes rather than human management and that has not been degraded by industrial activities. Mature trees dominate the canopy in a primary forest and a primary forest contains most or all of its native plant and animal species.

More specifically: a primary forest is a forest whose vegetation structure, species composition and ecosystem dynamics are predominantly the product of natural physical, ecological and evolutionary processes, including natural disturbance regimes such as fires, storms and landslides. Primary forests retain all, or the large majority, of their evolved, characteristic native plant, animal and microbial species, have few if any invasive species, are dominated at the landscape scale by mature canopy trees, have unpolluted waters, contain extensive coarse woody debris, and have not been subject to industrial land use activities such as commercial logging, mining and ranching.

As a “chapeau” term, primary forest covers a range of related terms including “old growth forest”, “ancient forest”, “primeval forest” and “intact forest landscapes”.

Why are primary forests important?

Primary forests are irreplaceable life-support systems. They ensure a wide range of vital ecosystem services that are either unique to primary forests, or that are of a superior quality and quantity to other forest types (such as degraded forests, secondary re-growth forests, plantations). In particular, they:

  • Protect the most biodiversity (plant, animal and microbial species, functional types, complex food webs, co-evolved species relationships);

  • Store vast carbon stocks. Primary forest store much more carbon than degraded forests. Their carbon stocks are also a safer investment because they are more stable and more resilient than degraded forests or plantations. To avoid dangerous climate change, we must protect the vast carbon stocks in primary forests. Protecting primary forests is essential for a safe transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free renewable energy.

  • Provide the cleanest freshwater, prevent erosion and help regulate local water cycles, and;

  • Inhibit the spread of vector borne diseases to humans.

  • Are the homelands of Indigenous Peoples around the world and are crucial for sustaining traditional culture and community livelihoods. Primary forests have often remained in good condition because of community and indigenous stewardship.

Importantly, primary forests provide more and higher quality ecosystem services because of their higher levels of biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. So to protect a primary forest’s ability to provide its full range of benefits it is critical to protect it from inappropriate land use activities, including industrial disturbance.

How much primary forest is left?

We have already lost over a third (about 35%) of the planet’s forests. Of the planet’s remaining forests, less than a third (about 30%) or just under 1.3 billion hectares are primary forests.

How much primary forest are we losing?

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization we are losing about 4 million hectares per year, though FAO statistics on primary forests significantly underestimate loss because the government reports they are based on are not always reliable and some governments do not report on primary forest loss at all. The recent scientific literature suggests that forests are being fragmented and degraded at very high rates. For example, a study in 2015 found that 70% of the world’s forests were now within one kilometer of a forest edge (road, clearing, pipeline etc.). A 2017 study found that large, contiguous blocks of forest (50,000 hectares or more) had decreased by over 7% since the year 2000.

Why are we losing primary forests?

Industrial agriculture is a primary driver of deforestation globally, including of primary forests. Primary forests are being cleared to make room for crops such as palm oil, soy etc. Oil and gas extraction and mining also contribute to deforestation, as do large-scale infrastructure such as roads and hydropower projects.

Primary forests are also being degraded primarily by commercial logging and by fuelwood gathering. Despite decades of efforts to develop best-practices for the logging industry, commercial logging has not proven sustainable in primary forests and often leads to total deforestation as degraded forests whose valuable timber has been removed are converted to agriculture.

In many regions, growing human populations are expanding the footprint of slash and burn agriculture. Helping communities farm more sustainably and develop alternative development pathways based on forest conservation is a prerequisite for protecting the world’s remaining primary forests.

What can we do to stop primary forest loss?

We know the range of mechanisms that are effective at protecting primary forests. Protected areas with good governance and adequate funding can successfully protect primary forests. Similarly, community conservation initiatives and Indigenous Peoples have a proven track record of protecting primary forests – often over millennia. Payments for ecosystem services schemes have also met with success. Conversely, it is crucial to stop viewing commercial logging as a sustainable and viable solution for protecting primary forests. Commercial logging has not proven sustainable in primary forests anywhere.

We need to “flip” incentive structures so that national and multilateral subsidies are directed to mechanisms that have demonstrated capacity to achieve primary forest protection – and to restoring degraded forest or regenerating forest. Currently, subsidies for industrial agriculture, extractive industries and other industrial developments far outweigh conservation funding. Shifting this balance to support actors on the ground that have a commitment and vested interest in keeping primary forests standing – especially indigenous and local communities – can have a profound and rapid effect on primary forest protection globally.