Conservation news

The sink and the safeguard: Benefits of protecting and restoring intact forests for people and planet (commentary)

  • The need for protecting intact forests is pressing, and not just in the hotspots for rapid land use change like the Amazon or the Congo Basin.
  • Forests in countries and regions experiencing relatively lower rates of deforestation, such as Suriname and Gabon, are also at risk of future degradation. Yet these High Forest Low Deforestation (HFLD) countries receive a relatively small portion of climate finance, challenging the ability to conserve and maintain many of the last intact forests.
  • When it comes to climate action, we tend to think of adaptation and mitigation as distinct strategies: efforts either to cope with the impacts or to curtail them. But in fact, research indicates that a significant percentage of initiatives aimed at mitigation also have adaptation outcomes. This is particularly evident in the forest and agricultural sectors. The same holds true for intact forests. Including these forests in the country-level targets of the Paris Agreement is a win-win on both fronts.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

What I remember most from that summer, ten years ago, are the juxtapositions: bumpy dirt roads and freshly paved highways, expansive cattle ranches and squatters waiting for land rights, dense forest with sweeping canopies and the smell of smoke. I remember the glow of the yellow corn kernels. They lined the sides of the BR158, one of Brazil’s longest highways and a central route for moving goods.

At the time, I was considering tackling a research project at the front lines of agricultural expansion. I was interested in the many complex factors driving deforestation and what rapid change meant for local people and the global climate system. I went to what was then — and remains today — one of the most controversial areas of forest conversion on the planet.

“What’s your interest?” the man on the bus asked me in Portuguese. “You saw your home change, and now you want to stop it here?”

I was frustrated that my Portuguese wasn’t good enough to reach the depth of conversation I wanted to have with him. My concern — what motivated me first to go to the edge of the Amazon — was rooted in the fundamental linkages between human and environmental health. Protecting intact forests, even back then, was about both local and global benefits — about people, functioning ecosystems, and carbon.

A decade later, the need for protecting intact forests is all the more pressing, and not just in the hotspots for rapid land use change like the Amazon or the Congo Basin. Those in countries and regions experiencing relatively lower rates of deforestation, such as Suriname and Gabon, are also at risk of future degradation. Yet these High Forest Low Deforestation (HFLD) countries receive a relatively small portion of climate finance, challenging the ability to conserve and maintain many of the last intact forests.

The recent report from the Global Commission on Adaptation, led by Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates, and Kristalina Georgieva, highlights the enormous return on investments for improving resilience to climate change. Nature-based solutions — like avoiding deforestation and forest degradation and restoring forests — provide a surprising one-third of the mitigation needed between now and 2030 to keep warming below 2°C. But those actions aren’t only about mitigation.

I like to think of protecting and restoring forests as playing both offensive and defense; these actions are a long-term investment in the carbon budget, but they also offer a suite of benefits to local communities on the adaptation front. Mangrove forests, for example, protect coastal and island communities from storm surges, tsunamis, and sea-level rise while providing other benefits such as food resources.

Numerous studies reveal the many other services these forests provide: They help regulate local and regional weather patterns; they sustain regional rainfall and reduce vulnerabilities to drought, fire, and flooding; they support pollination and seed dispersal. At least 35 percent of the world’s most intact forests are home to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs), whose long-established cultural practices are inextricably linked to their ecology.

Maintaining intact forests offers health benefits by reducing fires associated with land clearing and may also reduce the risk of infectious disease, as increased human presence in these areas is thought to be linked to the emergence of novel diseases.

When it comes to climate action, we tend to think of adaptation and mitigation as distinct strategies: efforts either to cope with the impacts or to curtail them. But in fact, research indicates that a significant percentage of initiatives aimed at mitigation also have adaptation outcomes. This is particularly evident in the forest and agricultural sectors.

The same holds true for intact forests. Including these forests in the country-level targets of the Paris Agreement is a win-win on both fronts.

Dr. Sacha Spector, the Program Director for the Environment at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which has supported the implementation of nature-based solutions, says, “Even if we stopped all emissions by mid-century, it won’t be enough. We need forests, too.” He added, “And it’s a double delta, if we can turn down the emissions and turn on the sink.”

Indeed, the last intact forests are already on. That sink is running. But we will have to work together to continue harnessing their potential.

Bosque del Magdalena Medio in Colombia. Photo Credit: Mauricio “EL PATO” Salcedo.

CITATION

• Kongsager, R., Locatelli, B., & Chazarin, F. (2016). Addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation together: A global assessment of agriculture and forestry projects. Environmental management, 57(2), 271-282. doi:10.1007/s00267-015-0605-y

Lauren E. Oakes is a conservation scientist and adaptation specialist with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University.

This is the 3rd installment of a 3-part series from the Wildlife Conservation Society during the week of the UN Climate Summit looking at the critical role of the world’s intact forests in mitigating the impact of the current climate crisis. Read the 1st and 2nd installments.

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