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Forest report points to opportunity for recovery

Large-bodied animals like this knobbed hornbill play an important role in forest ecosystems. Studies show that the loss of seed dispersers can have long-term effects on the carbon storage of forests. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Large-bodied animals like this knobbed hornbill play an important role in forest ecosystems. Studies show that the loss of seed dispersers can have long-term effects on the carbon storage of forests. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • In its biennial report, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) points to an overall global slowing of logging as cause for optimism about the world’s forests.
  • Over the seven decades that the assessments and reports have been conducted and issued by the UN’s FAO, issues of concern have shifted from supply to sustainability.
  • The report claims that the regenerative preservation of forests could help achieve at least 10 of the 17 sustainable development goals set out by the international community in 2015.

When it released its “State of the World’s Forests 2018” report in July, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) seemed to have taken to heart that old corporate PR rule of thumb that in times of crisis you should say “opportunity” rather than “problem.”

While, on the one hand, this biennial assessment of forest growth, health and loss warns that “time is running out for the world’s forests,” at the same time it expands on how better management and protection is absolutely critical not only for the forests themselves but for humanity and the world as a whole.

“Seventy years ago, FAO completed its first assessment of the world’s forest resources,” José Graziano da Silva, the organization’s director-general, said in the report’s foreword. “At that time, the major concern was whether there would continue to be sufficient timber to satisfy global demand. Since then we have increasingly come to recognize the broader global relevance of our forests and trees.”

The report says forests can help the world achieve at least 10 (and possibly more) of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) the international community signed up to at a historic U.N. summit in 2015. As lead author Eva Muller put it in her presentation of the report: “The branches of trees and forests reach out across the SDGs.”

It’s a big claim, as the SDGs cover everything from poverty to hunger, gender inequality to climate change. But the report makes convincing evidence-based arguments for its position.

First, it provides an update of the current situation for the world’s forests, and it’s not all bad news.

While deforestation is still happening, it has slowed, and in some areas of the world, has begun to reverse. The FAO’s Global Forests Resource Assessment found that the world’s forest area decreased from 31.6 percent of total land area to 30.6 percent between 1990 and 2015.

That loss seems to be slowing down. At a global level, the report finds, the net loss of forest area has decreased from 0.18 percent in the 1990s to 0.08 percent over the last five years. The picture is mixed, though. While forest cover has increased in Europe, the reverse is true in Southeast Asia.

This picture fits with the World Wildlife Fund’s most recent report, published in 2015, which found that more than 80 percent of deforestation between 2010 and 2030 is likely to take place in just 11 places — “deforestation fronts” that include Borneo, the Greater Mekong region, and the Amazon. If the rate of deforestation in the Amazon continues, the WWF found, more than a quarter of the region will be treeless by 2030.

The FAO report, however, highlights good practices in Brazil that could expand across the region.

For example, in Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca National Park, one of the world’s largest urban rainforests, the government began a reforestation project at the same time as building recreational infrastructure for locals and tourists, to help them see, appreciate and, ultimately, protect the forest itself.

Amazon deforestation is often a multi-step process, as land uses change. Photo by Sue Branford.

For the FAO, this contributes to SDG 11 — to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable — and of course the forest itself is now in a far better state because of this.

Making sure that forests play a role in our increasingly urban way of life can have huge benefits, the report suggests, pointing to a study in Baltimore, in the U.S., that found that a 10 percent increase in canopy cover was linked to a 12 percent decrease in crime.

The “State of the World’s Forests” highlights a number of other initiatives in key forest countries that could contribute to the U.N.’s SDGs in a variety of ways, including in areas that might not immediately spring to mind, such as ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water, or SDG 6.

Forests and water

While the link between forests and the water cycle is complicated, it’s incontrovertible, from preventing erosion to assisting with regulating stream flow and supporting groundwater recharge.

The world gets 75 percent of its freshwater from forested watersheds (river systems and all of their tributaries). In 2015, these watersheds were on average 28.8 percent tree-covered, down from historical estimates of 67.8 percent, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). Losing tree cover causes many problems, but they are fixable, as the FAO report suggests with the example of Lima, Peru.

The world’s second-largest desert city, Lima is situated in the Pacific Basin. This watershed has lost around 75 percent of its pre-2000 tree cover, leading to increased droughts, flooding and landslides. But the Peruvian government started taking action in 2014, which became even more pressing when Lima effectively ran out of water during the dry season the following year.

Female lion with wildebeest kill in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (East Africa). Photo by Rhett Butler.

Their tactic was to replace so-called gray infrastructure (pipes and man-made dams, for example) with green infrastructure: reforestation, wetland restoration, the reintroduction of pre-Incan infiltration canals, and improved pastoralism. In addition, the city’s water authority has earmarked 5 percent of its water tariff for tackling the issue, reaching $5 million by 2017 and contributing to further reforestation pilot projects.

The “State of the World’s Forests” also looks at Tanzania, where the deforestation rate is 1 percent a year and forests currently cover 52 percent of the land. There, the government has promoted participatory forest management (PFM) schemes with local communities to manage what is now 77,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) of forest. Local representatives of the Tanzanian Forest Services Agency work with communities and local government to achieve sustainable management.

“These arrangements have contributed to a recovery of flora and fauna in some areas and an increase in local incomes from trees and forest-related products,” the report notes. In other words, they neatly tackle a number of other SDGS, including promoting economic growth through providing decent work for all (SDG 8).

Full partners

There are, of course, other SDGs that relate more directly to forests: SDGs 12, 13 and 15 directly tackle sustainable consumption, climate change, and forest management (all of which are positively impacted by the initiatives outlined above). Others that may not spring to mind immediately include SDG 5, achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls.

The answer here lies in how involved women are with the forests in many communities. Of the 850 million people worldwide engaged in collecting fuelwood or producing charcoal, about 83 percent are women. As such, they have unique knowledge about the forests, which countries are beginning to wake up to. This is knowledge that can contribute not only to the women’s empowerment but to the future of forests and the economic growth of countries as a whole.

In Nepal, the Federation of Community Forest User Groups Nepal requires 50 percent of those elected to its national executive committee and district chapters to be women. It’s now chaired by a woman and is “challenging the stereotypes of male leadership.”

On the best way to approach the management of the world’s forests, the FAO seems to have fallen back on another piece of timeless advice, courtesy of John F. Kennedy (mostly): “Ask not,” the former U.S. president might have said, “what your forests can do for you.”

Here, this means moving beyond that old belief, laid out in the FAO’s original “State of the World’s Forests” report 70 years earlier, that forests are just resources to be exploited by humans for timber.

Instead, our mythical JFK might say, “ask what you can do for your forests.” Because by doing this, and better protecting and managing human interactions with forests, it is not only the forests themselves that benefit. The relationship goes both ways, and humans will find out just how much the forests can actually do for us, from reducing climate change to empowering women.

Banner image: Large-bodied animals like this knobbed hornbill play an important role in forest ecosystems. Studies show that the loss of seed dispersers can have long-term effects on the carbon storage of forests. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

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