RECOFTC
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Fighting the climate crisis with sustainable forest management

26, November 2020
Jürgen Blaser and Patrick Hardcastle
Financial cycles of our initiatives must be extended to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the climate change goals.
Perspectives

From safeguarding local livelihoods to protecting the biodiversity and ecosystems that forests provide, sustainable forest management (SFM) is “a good thing” for humanity and the planet. Beyond this acknowledgement, universal agreement quickly dissolves in terms of what SFM means, whether it is achievable and if so, how to go about it. 

Global rates of deforestation remain alarmingly high in many tropical countries where population growth, climate change and land clearance for commercial crops influence land use. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses since 1990, although the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past three decades (link). 

To assess the future for the sustainable management of tropical forests we brought together and analyzed insights from 50 specialists from around the world on the technical, economic, social, political and environmental contexts that make SFM successful. The results are now available in our new book, Achieving sustainable management of tropical forests (2020).

Inadequate recognition of the true economic value of directly consumed forest products and of unpriced, and often unrecognized, forest ecosystem services, leads to decision-making based on an incomplete understanding of the long-term value of tropical forests. 

We found that in the tropical moist biome, experts predict that population and income growth will heavily influence land and forest use, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. Much of the Congo Basin’s accessible tropical moist forests will be converted to mosaic landscapes. The Amazon Basin, the Mekong and some of the major islands of Indonesia will continue to experience forest loss in the coming decades, partly to make way for commercial crops. And climate change will have a major impact on forests and  agricultural production. Biodiversity and habitat loss will accelerate. There is a risk of complete land degradation, particularly in the Congo Basin and lowland Southeast Asia where a savanna-forest mosaic could dominate. 

Tropical dry biomes will follow different paths. Regions such as the Sahel will receive more precipitation and humidity. Others, such as the monsoon areas of eastern Africa and India, will be at higher risk of extended drought. Semi-arid and semi-humid tropical forests, such as those on the Indian subcontinent and in Central and South America, and mountain forest ecosystems will be among the most vulnerable forest ecosystems. Overall, tropical dry biomes will expand in area but decline in tree cover. 

Future reforestation will occur predominantly in the tropics, where fast growing tree species can more rapidly sequester carbon and produce fibre compared with those in temperate and boreal regions. There are many legitimate concerns about the potential harmful ecological and social impacts of forest plantations, including resistance to use of exotic species. However, experts believe there is now sufficient knowledge and experience to avoid negative impacts. 

Wood will remain the only multipurpose material that humans can produce sustainably for many decades to come. Forest plantations will therefore be required to meet an increasing demand for wood, food, medicines, watershed and soil protection, recreation and carbon sequestration. 

Primary forests will need careful management and protection. The management of degraded and secondary forests will become more important, requiring enrichment planting and new forms of short-rotation forestry to achieve a balance of biodiversity conservation and biomass production goals. With natural tropical forests becoming more vulnerable and fragile due to the fast pace of change, especially climate change, maintaining the production of forest goods and ecosystem services will depend increasingly on human interventions and ingenuity. Both science and governance reform will have important roles to play in achieving SFM.

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Members of the Prey KhbalBey Community Forest in Kampong Thom, Cambodia work in their nursery as part of the community's reforestation efforts, 11 November 2019. 

Although forests are intimately and inextricably entwined in the livelihoods of a substantial proportion of the human population in tropical countries, their voices are often given inadequate weight in decision making. As a result, external influences, driven by short-term profit or short-term benefits that accrue only to the external parties, have flourished. Real and effective community-based forest management, supported by a knowledgeable and creative cadre of well-resourced technicians, must play a more prominent role in the SFM of tropical forests than ever before.  

Much decision-making about forests is today based on inadequate and incomplete data and poor use of existing information. Science-policy interfaces are well established for broader environmental concerns, such as climate change and biodiversity. But they are often inadequately applied to SFM in the tropics. While there are high expectations that REDD+ will become a major source of funding for forest management, we have considerable work to do to put this and similar mechanisms, such as payments for ecosystem services, into effect. Inadequate recognition of the true economic value of directly consumed forest products and of unpriced, and often unrecognized, forest ecosystem services, leads to decision-making based on an incomplete understanding of the long-term value of tropical forests. This results in overexploitation and conversion to other uses.

Initiatives to which forests are relevant require funding commitments that span from one to two decades to consolidate changes for sustainable management.

While REDD+, FLEGT and forest landscape restoration have captured political interest and finance, much of the world’s tropical forests remain poorly protected and managed due to the lack of resources to ensure their day-to-day protection and careful management. Nevertheless, it is clear that despite challenges, many forestry professionals and those in complementary disciplines today believe SFM is a valuable and achievable goal. SFM is indeed on the agenda of many international conventions and its achievement has attracted substantial funding from initiatives to which forests are relevant. However, the financial cycle of these initiatives must be extended to match the time scale required to achieve the benefits of SFM. 

The common three-year to five-year funding framework for technical and development initiatives is insufficient to build the complex data and knowledge base required to achieve SFM. Initiatives to which forests are relevant require funding commitments that span from one to two decades to consolidate changes for sustainable management. Technical and development initiatives are normally designed to have a shorter life cycle, but experience shows progress is lost when the funding ends, well before initiatives reach a stable point. The mismatched funding cycle and expectations for SFM especially undermine community-based forest management initiatives, as they work to change behaviours and long established practices among community groups.

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Jürgen Blaser and Patrick Hardcastle are editors of Achieving sustainable management of tropical forests (2020). Blaser is Professor for International Forestry at the Bern University of Applied Sciences and the Global Forest Advisor to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Hardcastle is a forestry development specialist with more than 35 years' experience working with international organizations such as the International Tropical Timber Organization, the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.