Forests play a critical role in the balance of world climate as well as in vital carbon capture and retention. Forests cover 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface and in addition to providing food security and shelter, forests are key to combating climate change, protecting biodiversity and are homes of indigenous peoples. While forests contribute to many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 2030 Agenda contains a goal and various targets on forests, especially under SDG 15, which declared to “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”. Moreover, forest ecosystems account for over two-thirds of the conversion of solar energy into biomass through photosynthesis – making them a key component of the global carbon cycle and climate and these forests provide ecosystem services and and are a key source of livelihood of rural and forest-dwelling poor households.
Ranging in size from 18 hectares (Vallée de Mai, Seychelles), to 8.8 million hectares (Lake Baikal, Russian Federation), World Heritage forest sites now have a total surface area of over 75 million hectares (and represent over 13 per cent of all IUCN category I-IV protected forests worldwide. The World Heritage Convention is uniquely positioned amongst international conventions, programmes and agencies to play a leading role for in-situ conservation of forest biodiversity. In recognition of this responsibility, the World Heritage Committee agreed in 2001 that forests warranted a particular focus, and approved the creation of the World Heritage Forest programme to ensure that the World Heritage Convention be leveraged as much as possible to further forest conservation on a global scale.
As of the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in 2015, 110 World Heritage sites across all biogeographic realms were recognized as World Heritage forest sites. Twenty-five of these sites have been inscribed on the World Heritage List since the adoption of the World Heritage Forest Programme, making a significant contribution to the Global Strategy and forest conservation at a global level.
Forests are highly vulnerable. The current worldwide population explosion and climate change, together with civil unrest and the unregulated exploitation of timber and other assets, are among the major challenges facing world forests today. New globally comparable data sets such as the Human Footprint and the Global Forest Change have provided an opportunity to measure how well the natural World Heritage sites are maintaining their ecological integrity.
The World Heritage Convention as one of the world’s most effective conservation instruments globally, identifies and protects the Earth’s most valuable natural landscapes. On the occasion of the International Day of Forests 2017, I invite our friends and partners across the globe to join, promote and support our work to this field.