Header photo by (c) Eutah Mizushima via Unsplash

Why forests are vitally important

Forests provide a multitude of crucial ecosystem services to people and nature, such as climate regulation, biodiversity, food security and water supply. In addition, forests have cultural value for communities.

Forests as ally against climate change

Forests are also one of the most important solutions to addressing the effects of climate change. Forests absorb carbon dioxide, making them an important ally in countering greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, one-third of the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels, is absorbed by forests every year [4].

In addition, forests protect us against the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events, floods and droughts.

They therefore also play a crucial role in societal adaptation to climate change. They provide critical ecosystem services, such as watershed hydrological regulation[5], wood and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) [1]PROFOR (2015) What We Know about Forests and Adaptation. https://www.profor.info/knowledge/how-forests-enhance-resilience-climate-change.

But forests’ role in climate change is two-fold: deforestation actually causes greenhouse gas emissions.


  • Worldwide, 1.6 billion people (almost 25% of the world’s population) depend on forests for their livelihood [2]UN Environment Programme: https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/forests/about-forests.
  • Over 90% of people who live in extreme poverty depend on forests for (part of) their livelihood[1].
  • Forests provide US $75-100 billion per year in goods and services, such as clean water and healthy soils [3]IUCN (2021): https://www.iucn.org/theme/forests/our-work.
  • More than 30% of new diseases since 1960 are attributed to land-use change, including deforestation.[4]IPBES Pandemics Report (2020) https://www.ipbes.net/pandemics
  • Forests are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity [5]IUCN Issues brief on Forests and climate change: https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/forests-and-climate-change.

(Photo by Kouy Socheat, NTFP EP Cambodia IUCN NL)

Deforestation exacerbates climate change

Forest clearance fuels climate change. Around 25% of global emissions come from the land sector, the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the energy sector. About half of these (5-10 GtCO2e annually) comes from deforestation and forest degradation [4].

At the same time, forests are one of the most important solutions for combating climate change. It is therefore crucial to preserve forests worldwide and put an end to deforestation.

Despite the important function of forests, tropical forests are still under enormous pressure. Between 1990 and 2020, a total of more than 80 million hectares of forests were lost [6] FAO (2020): The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forests, biodiversity and people. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca8642en. In 2020, 12.2 million hectares of tropical forest have been lost, of which 4.2 million hectares are primary forests [7]World Resources Institute (2021): Forest Pulse: The Latest on the World’s Forests. https://research.wri.org/gfr/forest-pulse. Primary forests are extremely important for CO2 storage and biodiversity. The top 5 countries where most primary forest was felled in 2020 are Brazil, DR Congo, Bolivia, Indonesia and Peru.

Agriculture is the main cause of this global deforestation. Livestock production and the production of palm oil and soy are the biggest drivers of deforestation: between 2000 and 2010, they caused 40 percent of tropical deforestation.

But more and more forest is also disappearing due to mining, infrastructure and energy development and logging. Indirectly, the financial sector also plays a role: with their investments in and loans to sectors that cause deforestation, pension funds, banks and institutional investors indirectly contribute to the loss of nature.

Solid laws and regulations for forest conservation

To end deforestation, we need effective policy, supplemented with voluntary and binding regulations. Especially for value chains such as soy and palm oil, where in the past much forest was cleared to make way for plantations.

Therefore, we advocate with governments, the EU and the UN for strict laws, regulations and compliance. We also advise financial institutions on applying policy and standards that combat deforestation.

A powerful civil society

Furthermore, it is important that civil society – consisting of citizens, civil society organisations and environmental and human rights defenders – can speak out safely and freely when their rights and the rights of nature are at stake.

In more and more countries, however, that freedom is under pressure. People who stand up for the rights of their communities are increasingly confronted with violence and intimidation. IUCN NL condemns the curtailment of environmental and human rights defenders and advocates for a binding UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights. We also provide safety training and have an emergency fund in place so that people can be brought to safety or receive legal aid. In this way, we hope to help ensure that those who stand up for nature can continue to do so safely.

 Forests are our main ally in the fight against climate change.

Communities are the best guardians of the forest

Many valuable forests worldwide are managed and protected by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Research shows that management by communities is a highly effective form of conservation. The deforestation rate in areas where indigenous communities live is much lower [8]Fa, J. E., Watson, J. E., Leiper, I., Potapov, P., Evans, T. D., Burgess, N. D., … & Garnett, S. T. (2020). Importance of Indigenous Peoples’ lands for the conservation of Intact Forest … Continue reading and the greatest successes for conservation and well-being are achieved when indigenous and local communities are in charge [9]Dawson, N., Coolsaet, B., Sterling, E., Loveridge, R., Nicole, D., Wongbusarakum, S., & Rosado-May, F. (2021). The role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in effective and equitable … Continue reading. Unfortunately, their right to land and natural resources is often not well established and far from secure.

Therefore, we work with local partner organisations to safeguard land ownership and access rights and to ensure recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. We also help strengthen their capacity to protect and manage forested areas. We do this within the Green Livelihoods Alliance’s Forests for a Just Future programme.

We are committed to tackling forest crime in the Colombian Amazon, together with our local partners. The Amazon Rights in Focus: Peoples and Forest Protection programme aims to improve the territorial rights and livelihoods of the forest’s best guardians: Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

In Peru, we aim to strengthen the work of environmental defenders in the rich area of Madre de Dios, applying a gender and intercultural approach. We do this together with our partner organisations through the project PIDDA: inclusive protection of environmental defenders.

With our partner organisations, we also promote the development of sustainable alternatives to prevent deforestation. For example, by promoting livelihoods from sustainably harvested forest products, such as nut oil, shea butter, honey and rattan.

Opportunities for forest restoration

Estimates show that nearly two billion hectares of degraded land across the world – an area the size of South America – offer opportunities for restoration [10]https://www.wri.org/data/atlas-forest-and-landscape-restoration-opportunities. Increasing and maintaining forests is therefore an essential solution to climate change.

In South America, South-east Asia and Africa, we works towards the effective management of protected areas. For over 20 years, the IUCN NL Land Acquisition Fund enables nature organisations all over the world to protect, connect and restore forest fragments.

Funding for local climate solutions

IUCN NL therefore supports entrepreneurs from communities that are themselves experiencing the negative effects of climate change in scaling up activities to protect nature. Often these entrepreneurs have the best insight into which climate solutions are needed locally to turn the tide. IUCN NL helps them to transform projects that use nature-based solutions for climate adaptation and mitigation into profitable business cases, and attracts funding to scale up these local climate solutions, for example through the Mobilising More for Climate programme.

Learn more?

Maartje Hilterman
Project Leader – Forests for a Just Future
Evelien van den Broek
Senior Expert Environmental Justice


1 PROFOR (2015) What We Know about Forests and Adaptation. https://www.profor.info/knowledge/how-forests-enhance-resilience-climate-change
2 UN Environment Programme: https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/forests/about-forests
3 IUCN (2021): https://www.iucn.org/theme/forests/our-work
4 IPBES Pandemics Report (2020) https://www.ipbes.net/pandemics
5 IUCN Issues brief on Forests and climate change: https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/forests-and-climate-change
6 FAO (2020): The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forests, biodiversity and people. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca8642en
7 World Resources Institute (2021): Forest Pulse: The Latest on the World’s Forests. https://research.wri.org/gfr/forest-pulse
8 Fa, J. E., Watson, J. E., Leiper, I., Potapov, P., Evans, T. D., Burgess, N. D., … & Garnett, S. T. (2020). Importance of Indigenous Peoples’ lands for the conservation of Intact Forest Landscapes. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 18(3), 135-140. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2148
9 Dawson, N., Coolsaet, B., Sterling, E., Loveridge, R., Nicole, D., Wongbusarakum, S., & Rosado-May, F. (2021). The role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in effective and equitable conservation. Ecology and Society, 26(3). https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol26/iss3/art19/
10 https://www.wri.org/data/atlas-forest-and-landscape-restoration-opportunities