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20% of intact tropical forests overlap with extractive industries

Around in the world, 20% of intact tropical forests landscapes -- including forests in Ecuador, pictured here -- are threatened by oil and gas exploration. Julie Larson Maher/WCS
Around in the world, 20% of intact tropical forests landscapes -- including forests in Ecuador, pictured here -- are threatened by oil and gas exploration. Julie Larson Maher/WCS

July 16 (UPI) -- To curb global warming, humans need all the help they can get.

Healthy, intact forests are a key asset in the fight to slow climate change, but new research, published Friday in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, suggests at least 20% of tropical intact forest landscapes, or IFLs, overlaps with concessions, or land leases, for mining, oil and gas activities -- putting some 376,449 square miles of forestland at risk.

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Mining concessions pose the biggest risk, numerically, impacting just over 11% of the IFL acreage. While nearly 8% of tropical IFLs are exposed to oil and gas concessions.

Though Earth faces a variety of threats, most climate scientists and ecologists agree that the two biggest threats are declining biodiversity levels and rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Intact forests are a vital tool in the fight to address both crises.

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Most of the planet's remaining biodiversity hotspots can be found in tropical IFLs, with flora and fauna abundance and variety at near-natural levels. Tropical forests also provide unparalleled carbon sequestration services.

Only 20% of the world's remaining 549 million acres of tropical forests can be defined as intact. Between 2000 and 2013, the world's tropical IFLs declined by 7%.

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For the study, researchers overlaid maps of tropical IFLs and extractive concessions in South America, Asia-Pacific and Central Africa. Scientists measured the biggest overlap, 26%, in Central Africa.

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According to the new study, most of the extractive activities in tropical IFLs are exploratory.

"Many of these extractive projects are still in the early stages," lead study author Hedley Grantham, director of conservation planning at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a press release. "While this could imply a significant future threat to IFLs, it also means there is an opportunity to mitigate potential impacts before they occur."

Authors of the new study suggest, moving forward, governments decline to approve extractives concessions inside tropical IFLs. Likewise, researchers suggest oil, gas and mining operators take extra precautions to prevent damages within IFLs.

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