Six Pointers for a Strong FSC Response to Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs)

The FSC membership needs to consider the context of each individual forest landscape when formulating safeguards for the world’s shrinking IFLs.

Rod Taylor,
Global Director of the World Resources Institute (WRI), non-FSC member

Ten thousand years ago, before humans learnt to farm, forests covered about half of the land on earth. Around a third of these forests have since disappeared. Most of the forests still standing are degraded or fragmented; less than 20 per cent are still intact.

Against this backdrop, no one could deny the importance of safeguarding the world’s intact forest landscapes (IFLs), the last unbroken expanses of natural forest ecosystems that show no signs of significant human activity. IFLs are critical for the climate, holding nearly a third of the total carbon stored in trees; absorbing a fifth of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions every year; and storing over half of the Arctic’s permafrost. IFLs are large enough not to be wiped out entirely by single events such as fires, storms, volcanic eruptions, droughts, or insect outbreaks. They are also vast enough to accommodate viable populations of tiger, caribou, and other wide-ranging animals.

Though retaining IFLs is a global priority, strategies for doing so need to be tailored to the development aspirations, governance realities, and ecological dynamics of a given place. I propose six pointers for the consideration of FSC members as they work to translate the global imperative to protect IFLs into effective, locally adapted measures.

  1. Respect the rights and aspirations of people living in, or near, IFLs. Even though IFLs are defined as areas minimally influenced by human economic activity, they often do have people in them. Activities in IFLs, whether for production or conservation, require the consent of peoples whose territories they overlap. Solutions need to balance ecological concerns with what matters most for the people living in the landscape. A new road that dissects a large forest block may also serve as a remote community’s lifeline, connecting them to medical care, markets, and schools. Conversely, the road may be the catalyst for land-grabbing, conflict, and impoverishment of that community.
  2. Don’t isolate IFL conservation measures from other FSC safeguards. FSC Principle 3 upholds the right of Indigenous Peoples to give, or withhold, their consent to activities impacting their territories. Principle 9 requires FSC certificate holders to maintain and enhance high conservation values (HCVs) – including those associated with landscape-level ecosystems and mosaics. Rigorous application of best practices in assessing, managing, and monitoring HCVs (via licensed assessors) would help clarify and protect the unique attributes of each IFL, at least within areas under the control of FSC certificate holders.
  3. Tailor measures to mimic the natural disturbance regime. IFLs are naturally dynamic. In a tropical rainforest, for example, falling trees create temporary canopy gaps that admit sunlight vital to the growth of understorey trees and seed germination. However, the overall structure of the rainforest remains relatively constant. By contrast, recurrent fires can shape forests in drier landscapes. Large stands of even-aged pioneer tree species might grow in burnt areas, creating a landscape of areas each in a distinct stage of recovery and succession. These different ecological contexts call for IFL conservation measures that are attuned to the natural disturbance regime of a place, including the degree to which its ecology can withstand disturbances associated with specific harvesting practices, or temporary logging roads.
  4. Conduct robust scenario analysis to avoid perverse outcomes. FSC Motion 65 calls for an “assessment of the viability and effectiveness of alternative land use options in maintaining and enhancing intactness of IFLs”. This responds to the potential impact of strict IFL conservation measures on the commercial viability of FSC-certified operations. It recognizes the need for careful assessment of whether a proposed measure will motivate FSC certificate holders to surrender their certificates, or give up, or avoid, concessions containing IFLs, and the likely fate of those IFLs if that happens.
  5. Wherever possible, leverage national policies, regulations, and land-use plans. FSC certificate holders are not the only actors whose activities could degrade IFLs. Logging roads, mining roads, public highways, railways, and pipelines can also fragment IFLs. Because IFL conservation strategies need to address multiple, competing interests, they are more likely to succeed if they involve a wider suite of actors than just FSC certificate holders. IFL conservation measures within the FSC system will have more impact if they are reinforced by government-sponsored, participatory, land-use planning processes and climate change mitigation strategies. FSC members need to engage in wider political processes to address threats to IFLs from other sectors and actors.
  6. Adapt the global IFL concept, as needed, for more granular applications. Concepts like IFLs, ‘hinterland forests’, and ‘primary forests’, and coarse-scale maps of where they exist, are helpful in presenting the ‘big picture’ on the state of the world’s forests. However, they have limited utility in guiding management and land-use decisions at very local scales. For example, within the IFL concept, low-intensity human activities such as shifting cultivation, diffuse grazing, selective logging, and hunting do not disqualify an area from IFL status. Activities that can be sensed on satellite imagery (roads, towns, large-scale agriculture, etc.) are used as proxies for human impact when making global IFL maps. But visibility does not always correlate with impact. For example, intense hunting may destroy the ecological integrity of an area, while remaining largely invisible on satellite imagery. On the other hand, as the resolution of remote-sensing technology improves, more signs of human activity will be detected and the accuracy of IFL boundaries on current maps is likely to be challenged. As co-publishers of the IFL maps, WRI is open to open to considering options for adaptation of current definitions and mapping procedures to keep pace with technology, and explore other adaptations of the original IFL concept to support more granular applications for FSC purposes.

I encourage FSC members to search hard for viable, locally adapted solutions to improve stewardship of the world’s IFLs, and to nurture these within the FSC system and through dialogue with other sectors and actors.


The views expressed in the opinion pieces released both prior to and at the FSC General Assembly are the personal opinion of the author, and do not represent the views of FSC. Different members were approached to provide two sides of each argument, but some members exercised their right to decline.