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Forests and forest communities critical to climate change solutions

  • A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights the importance of land use in addressing climate change.
  • The restoration and protection of forests could be a critical component in strategies to mitigate climate change, say experts, but governments must halt deforestation and forest degradation to make way for farms and ranches.
  • The IPCC report also acknowledges the role that indigenous communities could play.
  • The forests under indigenous management often have lower deforestation and emit less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

How we use the planet’s land, including forests, will make a huge difference in determining the path of climate change in the future, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.

The IPCC released a summary of its special report on climate change and land on Aug. 8. Experts say the report reinforces the importance of taking land use into account as a front-line strategy for dealing with rising global temperatures as a result of increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“Our options in terms of protecting, restoring and expanding forests are immediately available, proven at scale, and often very cost-effective, while also providing benefits for clean air, water, biodiversity, soil health, climate resilience — you name it,” Katharine Mach, a climate researcher and associate professor at the University of Miami, said in a press briefing on Aug. 1.

Forest and terraced hillsides in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Forests collectively pull out roughly a third of global CO2 emissions, and the potential for keeping a lid on climate change is even higher with the right restoration and protection plans in place, Mach said. That emphasis on keeping forests standing and bringing them back in places where they once stood dovetails with the need to cut the amount of fossil fuels we burn for energy.

“This relationship between fossil fuels and forests is a ‘yes-and’ relationship,” she added.

A banana plantation in the village of San Jose in the Philippines. Image by Jeoffrey Maitem/Global Witness.

But holding back the tide of deforestation against interests intent on short-term financial gains has proven difficult.

“That is why we need to ensure tropical forests are worth more standing than when they are cut down for grazing livestock, growing crops or harvesting timber,” David Festa, senior vice president for ecosystems with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

The sentiment echoes a remark from noted biologist E.O. Wilson during an interview with the BBC: “Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”

Residents playing basketball in the village of San Jose in the Philippines. Image by Jeoffrey Maitem/Global Witness.

That’s particularly true in the Brazilian Amazon, Carlos Nobre, a senior climate scientist at Brazil’s University of São Paolo, said at the briefing. The push for timber, agriculture, ranching and mining in the largest block of rainforest left on Earth has led to a surge in deforestation rates of 40 percent in the past three years.

“That’s very worrying,” Nobre said. He added that continued deforestation in the Amazon could permanently turn the rainforest into a savanna that releases tens of billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

“The Amazon forest may be closer to a tipping point than we assumed before,” Nobre said.

Protecting forests because of their potential to mitigate climate change can have other positive effects, such as protecting biodiversity. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Part of the solution could come from overhauling the way we produce food, Charlotte Streck, founder of the think tank Climate Focus, said during the briefing. Streck pointed out that raising livestock to satisfy the global appetite for meat accounts for 15 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the majority of emissions from the global agricultural sector.

“All this means that one of the most effective climate actions that we can take as individuals is to improve our diets,” she said. “The good news is that we are already seeing diet changes in the United States and Europe. The consumption of red meat is falling, in particular, in urban centers.”

But for lasting changes to protect forests, we must take into account — and indeed, enlist the experience, knowledge and expertise — of the people who call them home, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said at the briefing.

A local farmer in the Philippines. Image by Jeoffrey Maitem/Global Witness.

“No one understands the value of forests better than indigenous and local communities,” she said. “As experts, often guided by hundreds of years of knowledge, we are uniquely suited to manage, protect and restore the world’s forests.”

Research has shown that forests managed by indigenous communities have lower deforestation rates and release less CO2 than those managed by governments, and the new IPCC report recognizes for the first time the role these peoples could play in addressing climate change.

“Finally, the world’s top scientists recognize what we have always known,” a group of community and indigenous organizations from 42 countries said in their response to the report released on Aug. 8.

A member of a group resisting a hydropower dam in Guatemala. Image by James Rodriguez/Global Witness.

But critical to nurturing that beneficial relationship is acknowledging indigenous land rights around the world. The statement’s authors point out that these communities customarily take care of more than half the world’s surface. But governments only recognize their ownership of about a tenth of global land. Furthermore, the signatories to the response argue, these groups must be involved in decision-making processes about what happens to the land they hold — what’s known as free, prior and informed consent, or FPIC.

But standing up for the right to have a say over what happens to a piece of land is often contentious and dangerous. On July 30, Global Witness released a report documenting the deaths of 164 “land and environmental defenders” in 2018 — an average of more than three a week.

Another study, published Aug. 5 in the journal Nature Sustainability, found that more than one-third of killings between 2014 and 2017 over natural resources involved either agriculture or mining interests.

“No one knows the conflicts playing out among food, fuel and forests better than indigenous peoples and local communities,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “We’re often in the cross-hairs of conflicts over land, especially forests.”

The number of environmental and land defenders killed by country in 2018. Image courtesy of Global Witness.

Banner image of a farmer looking over the new oil palm plantation abutting his land in Peru, by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Butt, N., Lambrick, F., Menton, M., & Renwick, A. (2019). The supply chain of violence. Nature Sustainability, 2(8), 742-747. doi:10.1038/s41893-019-0349-4

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