Three reasons we must protect secondary forests now

We hear a lot about how tropical rainforests are cleared for logging and palm oil at extraordinary rates, and how devastating this is for the climate. But in the last few years we have heard the seemingly fantastic news that Indonesia and Malaysia — the world’s two biggest palm oil producers — have brought their primary forest loss down to record low levels

It’s wonderful that primary forests are starting to get the protection they need. But what we don’t hear so much about are all the secondary forests, and what’s going on with them. Secondary forests, which are forests that have experienced previous logging or partial disturbance, are frequently overlooked despite their immense ecological and socioeconomic value. 

Unfortunately, while primary forest loss is at a low, secondary forests are being cleared to make way for plantations, for palm oil, and even for carbon credit projects. A lot of the damage being done right now where we work is being done to secondary forests. And, according to modeling from climate watchdog RimbaWatch, deforestation for timber plantations is now a bigger threat to Malaysia’s forests than palm oil. And the lion’s share of that threat is in Sarawak, where hundreds of thousands of hectares of secondary forests are scheduled to be cleared to make way for plantations.

For timber plantations, native forest is cleared to plant fast-growing tree species. These are usually non-native and monocropped, and usually require a hefty amount of fertilizer and pesticides. These trees are then used to make a variety of wood products, including furniture, cheap plywood, and paper. 

Secondary forests recently cleared in Sarawak to make way for industrial plantations

They are full of important resources for conservation

    While primary forests often boast an incredible array of unique species, secondary forests also serve as vital habitats for numerous threatened and endangered animals and plants. Secondary forests also function as essential wildlife corridors, facilitating connectivity between intact forest areas. Neglecting the conservation of secondary forests jeopardizes the survival of countless species and undermines biodiversity preservation efforts.

    They are really important for forest communities

      Secondary forests also serve as indispensable resources for local communities. They provide many benefits essential for livelihoods and well-being, including medicinal plants, housing materials, raw materials for handicrafts, and sustenance — contributing to food security and economic stability. Additionally, they play a pivotal role in maintaining clean water sources, safeguarding the health of surrounding ecosystems and human populations.

      They are really important in the fight against climate change

        More than half of the world’s forests are secondary forests. Clearing secondary forests not only releases stored carbon but also diminishes their capacity to sequester carbon in the future. With tropical forests holding 80% of the world’s terrestrial carbon, safeguarding secondary forests is imperative for climate resilience.

        It only takes 66 years for secondary forests to recover 90% of their old-growth values, and recovering forests sequester more carbon than their old growth equivalents. Given the chance, recovering forests could sequester nearly half the current level of greenhouse gasses if left undisturbed. So, beyond their ecological and socio-economic significance, the preservation of secondary forests is crucial for mitigating climate change. 

        Recognizing the value of secondary forests is pivotal for implementing effective biodiversity, livelihood, and climate measures, and prioritizing Indigenous land rights and supporting grassroots initiatives is the best way to safeguard these critical ecosystems. Forest protection and climate commitments that include both primary and secondary forests are essential. Countries with tropical rainforests can’t keep bragging about progress on the one hand while continuing to knock down forests on the other.