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Towards a more holistic understanding of tropical forest degradation

Manoela Machado, Yadvinder Malhi

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5th July 2023. 10:30 AM - 1:30 PM (Room 4)


Degradation is a key concept in the conservation and use of tropical forests, but is poorly defined or understood in terms of its impacts on ecological function. This symposium will attempt to forge a new and more holistic understanding of degradation and its role in changing tropical forests.

Degradation is a concept at the core of many tropical forest conservation and restoration strategies, such as REDD+. However, the concept of degradation is not clearly defined, or framed purely in terms of biomass and carbon stocks rather than in ecological structure or function. Moreover, definitions on drivers of disturbance and how to account for their impacts are not well understood or described across the tropical forest biome, or even within the same continent and sociopolitical context. Also, the consequences of forest degradation on biodiversity and other ecosystem services depend on the type, severity and frequency of the disturbance, and their compounding effects. Disturbed forests can still harbour valuable, or even enhanced levels, of biodiversity and ecological functioning (Malhi et al., 2022), but are highly vulnerable to further degradation. One potential conservation strategy involves leveraging emerging carbon markets as a source of capital to support protection mechanisms to prevent further degradation. However, tracking emissions from degradation remains challenging given the considerable uncertainty associated with how severely each type of disturbance can affect carbon stocks (Silva Junior et al., 2021, Mills et al., 2023). Effective conservation strategies for tropical forests increasingly depend on having a clear and unified understanding of key definitions around forest degradation. In this symposium, we aim to bring together experts to address several key issues:

1- Is there an appropriate socio-ecological definition of degradation?

2- Which metrics should we use to quantify degradation; how do we account for the interactions between disturbances; and what is the ideal time frame for each environment?

3- What are the thresholds of disturbance to cause degradation and deforestation?

4- What are the pathways for biodiversity, ecological function, structure and biomass recovery following anthropogenic disturbance events?

5- How can we quantify carbon emissions from forest degradation and recovery, and properly account for them in global estimates?

Our talks will cover the challenges around disturbance and degradation on the tropical forest biome and also explore how key definitions can go beyond carbon and biomass. The issues covered in this symposium are timely for scientific and conservation practice across the tropical region. Our symposium encompasses a balance in both the gender and the career stage of the speakers. Finally, we aim that this symposium results in a joint manuscript, potentially in Biotropica, covering the discussions and outputs from this symposium.

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