We identify policies that would provide a solid foundation in key international negotiations to ensure that primary forests persist into the 21st Century. A novel compilation of primary forest cover and other data revealed that protection of primary forests is a matter of global concern being equally distributed between developed and developing countries. Almost all (98%) of primary forest is found within 25 countries with around half in five developed ones (USA, Canada, Russia, Australia, and NZ). Only ∼22% of primary forest is found in IUCN Protected Areas Categories I–VI, which is approximately 5% of preagriculture natural forest cover. Rates of deforestation and forest degradation are rapid and extensive, and the long-term integrity of primary forest cannot be assumed. We recommend four new actions that could be included in climate change, biodiversity, and sustainable development negotiations: (1) recognize primary forests as a matter of global concern within international negotiations; (2) incorporate primary forests into environmental accounting; (3) prioritize the principle of avoided loss; and (4) universally accept the important role of indigenous and community conserved areas. In the absence of specific policies for primary forest protection, their unique biodiversity values and ecosystem services will continue to erode.

Authors: Brendan Mackey, Dominick A. DellaSala, Cyril Kormos, David Lindenmayer, Noelle Kumpel, Barbara Zimmerman, Sonia Hugh, Virginia Young, Sean Foley, Kriton Arsenis, James E.M. Watson

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