Scaling up sustainability: time for forestry to come out of the forest

14 nov 2012

Thoughts from CIFORs Director General Peter Holmgren

BOGOR, Indonesia (10 October, 2012)_Ending deforestation has been a political goal for decades, even centuries – an unmet ambition up there with finding world peace and eradicating global hunger. The challenge has received increased attention in the past five years because of climate change and the fact that forests keep massive stores of carbon away from the atmosphere.

The UN-backed scheme known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks), could see relatively large payments made to keep that carbon in the forests. As a consequence, a significant part of international forestry efforts has recently been focused on this one objective. Using forests to offset human-induced climate change is an admirable aim, and it is likely that other forestry objectives, such as conserving biological diversity, would benefit from this as well. But this focus has become almost myopic. We must not neglect the greater potential of forestry to contribute to questions of economic and human development.

Forestry is not an isolated sector

Forestry is not an isolated sector disconnected from the world beyond the trees. For local people, the forest is a source of renewable energy, food and livelihoods. Results released last year from a six-year study by the Center for International Forestry Research, show that forest income, on average, constitutes more than one-fifth of total household income for people living in or near forests. This includes wood for fuel and construction, bushmeat, edible and medicinal plants. Forest products also contribute significantly to global business and trade; wood and non-wood forest products constitute 4% of global trade in commodities. Forests also provide environmental services that are critical for sustaining life, such as biodiversity and of course climate regulation through carbon storage. While REDD+ has helped raise awareness about this latter service, there is surprisingly limited debate around the ways in which the combined benefits of forestry add up to make a weighty contribution to global sustainable development solutions.

Land use and development are unequivocally linked

Conservation, land use and development are unequivocally linked and by combining them rather than pitting them against each other, we can build comprehensive solutions rather than ‘either-or’ scenarios.

Conservation of forests is often seen to be in opposition to economic development. However, conservation, land use and development are unequivocally linked and by combining them rather than pitting them against each other, we can build comprehensive solutions rather than ‘either-or’ scenarios.

Food security is important to the role of forestry in several ways

Food security is one area where the conservation and human development agendas have been framed as opponents. Clearly, without food security for all, we cannot claim any success in sustainable development. The plight of one billion undernourished people around the world is a huge moral and developmental dilemma that must be addressed. To do this successfully however, we must review the perception that food security mainly requires the production of more food. Instead, we must understand that food insecurity exists largely because of poverty, lack of access to food and inadequate nutrition. Food security is therefore not achieved just by producing more calories off the land.

This is important to the role of forestry in several ways. First, policies that stimulate agricultural expansion (ie deforestation) should not do so in the name of food security. Second, forestry, including agroforestry, provides opportunities for more diversity in food and hence better nutrition. Third, income from forestry products and services can reduce poverty, one of the underlying factors of food insecurity. And we need better recognition of the role forestry plays in providing energy for cooking for hundreds of millions of people, an often-overlooked dimension of food security.

Benefits that forestry can bring to sustainable development

If we avoid the false dichotomy between forestry and food security, we will find that these differing sustainability objectives can actually support each other. Similarly, moving towards healthy and resilient landscapes, reduced environmental impact from agriculture, and improved marketing opportunities for land-based products are all parts of the same sustainability equation. Forestry’s contribution can be scaled up through improved practises. While such solutions need to be specific to local circumstances, I see three key needs at a general level:

  • Fair, affordable and accessible private finance that promotes sustainable land use, particularly for rural smallholders, is needed. We expect that schemes such as REDD+ will increase or stimulate investments in sustainable land use, but rural finance needs also must be addressed more broadly.
  • Food policies should recognise the value that forestry brings to the table. Food and nutrition security depend on a variety of factors where forestry is key – both for nutrition, renewable energy and the resilience of landscapes.
  • It must be recognised that ambitious and targeted global forest-related initiatives such as REDD+ can leverage broader benefits, and should therefore be seen as integral parts of rural development efforts, rather than conservation projects.

Forestry has too often been defined in terms of what it can stop rather than what it can create. As long as we continue to measure the contributions of forests solely against the benchmarks of ending deforestation and limiting climate change, we will be blind to the much wider benefits that forestry can bring to sustainable development. It is time for forestry to come out of the forest.

Peter Holmgren is director general for the Center for International Forestry Research. This story was first published on the Guardian. Read comments and find DG Peter Holmgrens blogg at CIFORs homepage.

Photo: John Foxx