Global dry forests: Time to take notice

Without sufficient research, these valuable ecosystems are disappearing fast.
Children, cattle in the threatened dry forests of Burkina Faso. CIFOR.

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Almost four years ago, CIFOR organized a side event on the tropical dry forests of Africa at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa.

At that event, we identified the major issues affecting dry forests in Africa and released a clarion call for action to increase research and development activities in African drylands.

As we began to look deeper, it became clear that it was not just the dry forests of Africa experiencing considerable rates of deforestation and degradation; these trends are being felt worldwide. Thus, a focus purely on the African continent seemed to limit our understanding the importance of dry forests from a global perspective. While each region has its own unique floristic qualities and drivers of change, there are in fact fascinating commonalities that characterize the dry forests of the tropics.

During the World Forestry Congress in Durban, the city where we first launched our dry forests strategy (in fact I write this in the very hotel where that event was held), it is pertinent that we are able to unveil a significant body of work on the current status of global dry forests, and to identify major research and development gaps by region.

Rooted in the first Durban meeting and subsequent wider consultation among the research, development and donor communities, this new research reveals that global dry forests account for nearly half of the world’s tropical and subtropical forests, spanning large areas of Africa (including Madagascar), Latin America and the Asia Pacific.

The timber and non-timber products they provide are essential to the livelihoods and well-being of millions of the world’s poorest people

Terry Sunderland

The timber and non-timber products they provide are essential to the livelihoods and well-being of millions of the world’s poorest people, especially women and girls, and contribute significantly to healthy diets. Yet tropical dry forests are at even greater risk of disappearing than humid forests, primarily due to higher population densities and the associated demand for energy and land.


Despite the provision of invaluable ecosystem services that support the agricultural systems upon which millions of subsistence farmers depend, dry forests differ from humid forests in the goods and services they supply and their management needs. But they receive relatively little research attention – which means the data required for site-specific, evidence-based policy are often incomplete.

Our research also suggests that dry forests across the globe show reduced resilience compared to tropical rainforests. The combination of increasing anthropogenic pressures and low ecological thresholds make these systems prone to experiencing catastrophic changes (e.g. climatic), therefore increasing the costs of management decisions dramatically. Ignoring these thresholds and associated costs puts both people and ecosystems at risk.

Our early work on dry forests suggested that these valuable ecosystems are disappearing fast, and research to inform policy has historically been, in the large part, lacking. This new publication is an attempt to bridge that gap. We take great pleasure at its formal launch here under the auspices of the World Forestry Congress, in Durban, where this process began four long years ago.

Terry Sunderland is a principal scientist at CIFOR. You can contact him at

CIFOR’s research on dry forests is supported by USAID and the UK Department for International Development and forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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Topic(s) :   Editors’ Choice 2015 Dry Forests