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Study identifies mega trends with ‘major consequences’ for forests, livelihoods

Sungai Utik Iban taking a dugout upstream in West Kalimantan, Indonesia

Sungai Utik Iban taking a dugout upstream in West Kalimantan, Indonesia by Rhett A. Butler.

  • A newly published study identifies five large-scale trends that may substantially affect forests in the future in both negative and positive ways.
  • These five trends are: changing rural demographics, forest megadisturbances, an increase in the middle class in low-income countries, increased access and use of technology, and the development of large-scale infrastructure.
  • Much of the research connecting forests and livelihood has been done on the household and community level, the authors say, but the goal of this study was to address the forest and human link at an intercontinental scale, recognizing connections across space and over time in an increasingly globalized world.
  • The study calls for an increase in case study research within these five trends, deeper exploration of the trends over time and space, and a greater focus on the causes of social and environmental changes.

Nearly 2 billion people live within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of a forest, and many rely on forests directly as a source of livelihood. But forests also play a critical role in reaching larger global sustainability goals. As that role becomes clear, so too does the importance of understanding the impacts of global trends on forests and the people who depend on them.

A newly published study in the journal Nature Plants identifies five large-scale trends that may substantially affect forests in the future in both negative and positive ways.

“Global interest in forests as a means to address sustainability challenges is rapidly increasing. The five trends that we identify are poorly understood and are likely to have major consequences for forests and forest livelihoods over the coming decade,” Johan Oldekop, an associate professor at the University of Manchester and lead author of the report, told Mongabay in an email.

Much of the research connecting forests and livelihoods has been done on the household and community level, the authors say. But the goal of this study was to address the forest and human link at an intercontinental scale, recognizing connections across space and over time in an increasingly globalized world. For example, European and North American demand for commodities such as palm oil drives environmental degradation in the tropical forests of Indonesia. Agricultural fires in Indonesia affect the health of people across Southeast Asia.

To identify these large-scale trends, a group of international researchers and experts in forests and rural development from academia, government and NGOs used a method known as the “horizon scanning approach.” In consultation with 136 experts from 23 countries, the authors refined an initial list of 98 trends down to the final five. No list can cover all emerging trends, but, according to the authors, this list includes the five major areas that will have the greatest impact on forests and require more understanding.

The study calls for an increase in case study research within these five trends, deeper exploration of the trends over time and space, and a greater focus on the causes of social and environmental changes.

“Understanding how social, economic, political and environmental factors operating at local, national, and global scales cause changes in forest conditions and forest-linked livelihoods can build a stronger evidence base to inform decision-making.” Laura Vang Rasmussen, a co-author of the paper from the University of Copenhagen, told Mongabay in an email.

According to the study, “the five large-scale trends that are likely to have substantial medium- and long-term effects on forests and forest livelihoods” are as follows:

Forest megadisturbances

Climate change is impacting the health of forests. Megadisturbances such as severe droughts or excessive rains have made forests more vulnerable to disease and pathogens as well as human-caused disasters such as fires and floods. There is increasing evidence to support the link between forest disturbance, human interactions with forests, and zoonotic diseases such as SARS and COVID-19.

To address these megadisturbances while supporting livelihoods, conservation measures and climate change mitigation, the paper says, policies will need to make strategic use of different forest types (intact forests, second-growth forests, agroforestry, and plantations). Sustainability agendas such as the Bonn Challenge and Paris Agreement present both opportunities and challenges for policies striving to balance forest restoration and conservation responses to equity, poverty and land rights. In low- and middle-income countries where land is

Changing rural demographics

Communities that rely on forests are seeing an unprecedented exodus of community members, predominantly men, from rural to urban areas. In China, for example, recent changes in movement restrictions resulted in “one of the largest movement of people in human history” into cities. Migrations in Nepal, Mexico and the Philippines are also cited as examples of countries where changing rural demographics are changing the way humans use and rely on forests.

This global trend and its effects on forests is not well understood. Smaller populations in rural areas may relieve pressures on forests and allow them to regenerate. Conversely, increased demand for food and resources in urban areas could result in large agricultural projects or infrastructure developments that worsen deforestation.

The rise of the middle class

In low- and middle-income countries, the middle class is expected to grow to almost 5 billion people by 2030, around half of the world’s population. As more people have more money to spend, the demand for goods and commodities will rise, increasing pressure on land and forests. Already, increased demand and consumption has led to a rise in corporations buying land to produce cattle, soybeans, palm oil and other commodities, and an estimated 27% of forest disturbance was linked to commodity-driven deforestation between 2001 and 2015.

Feeding people is among the greatest environmental and health challenges of the century, according to the EAT-Lancet Commission. Increasing urban populations, increased incomes, and the resulting demand for meat products and highly processed foods is driving unhealthy diets. Shifting to healthier diets will require the consumption of more fruits, nuts, vegetables and legumes, the commission says. Because many of these products are sourced from the wild or are low-yielding, the role of trees and forests in feeding the world needs to be addressed.

“Indeed, forests and agriculture are typically managed as separate sectors, although the contribution of forests to food and agricultural production via environmental services at local and global scales should receive greater recognition and policy support,” the paper says.

The use of digital technologies

Cellphones, personal computers, smart gadgets and social media “are likely to have transformational impacts on the forest sector in the coming decade,” the study says. Access to the internet and cellphones have increased more than sevenfold over the past 20 years, primarily in industrialized countries. So too has the development and accessibility of technologies used to monitor and study forests. Platforms such as Global Forest Watch have made data and satellite imagery on deforestation and land change accessible to the public, and TRASE has made it easier to track international supply chains for commodities such as soybeans and palm oil.

Such information can be used by NGOs, forest managers and policymakers, and communities can benefit from these information tools and technologies. But these same tools can also aid those involved in illicit or illegal activities such as logging, mining and drug trafficking.

Infrastructure development

As the global population grows, demand for energy and resources increases. Large infrastructure endeavors such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the proliferation of dams in the Andean Amazon are transforming and destroying forests. In the Amazon, nearly half of all downgrading and downsizing of protected areas is linked to hydropower dams. And by 2050, it is expected that more than 25 million kilometers (15.5 million miles) of new roads will be built to aid the flow of commodities. These projects, “made possible by national political and economic elites, the increased use of public-private financing mechanisms, international financial institutions, geopolitical interests and the support of subnational elites,” the study says, will transform forests in the coming decades.

Citation:

Oldekop, J. A., Rasmussen, L. V., Agrawal, A., Bebbington, A. J., Meyfroidt, P., Bengston, D. N., … Wilson, S. J. (2020) Forest-linked livelihoods in a globalized world. Nature Plants, 218(96). doi:10.1038/s41477-020-00814-9

Banner image: Sungai Utik Iban taking a dugout upstream in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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