(Re)connecting the Dots: To See Progress, We Must Place People and Forests at the Center of the Sustainable Development Paradigm (SDG Knowledge Hub)

20, August 2018
David Ganz
Executive Director David Ganz writes for IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub, arguing that people and forests need to be emphasized in our pursuit of sustainable development.

This article was originally published on IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub

“The branches of trees and forests reach out across the SDGs” was the resounding call at the 24th session of the Committee on Forestry (COFO 24) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), which was expressed poignantly by Eva Muller in her presentation on the launch of FAO’s flagship report, ‘State of the World’s Forests 2018.’

A few days prior, a similar call was issued at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Every government, every human being can rally behind the 2030 Agenda as an agenda for prosperity and peace on a healthy planet,” noted Guterres, including the natural environment as an integral part of peace, prosperity, and humanity’s natural rights.

The increased attention on SDG 15 (life on land) can be thanked for this recent upswing in connecting the natural world to peace and prosperity. By stressing the importance of terrestrial ecosystems to all other SDGs, the UN has urged the global community to rethink the centrality of forests to their development aspirations.

SDG 15’s influence is apparent in its call to ensure that the sustainable management of forests continues to protect biodiversity, restores and promotes the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, and halts and reverses land degradation.

None of these measures can be achieved if forests are not at the heart of land use policies, development strategies, and actions that go far beyond the forest sector. Consequently, there has been an increased emphasis on certain sustainable management practices, especially those that can integrate multiple sectors to evaluate the opportunities of food, water and energy security.

One such integrated approach is Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR). But is this enough?

The attention on FLR is well deserved and inspiring to me as a member of the forestry community. Yet I still find that rhetoric surrounding this approach is falling short of its goal: to connect people and forests, and in so doing, force us to realize the importance of keeping local people at the center of sustainable forest management.

As I noted at COFO 24, “For the forestry community and the development sector, it should be self-evident that people and landscapes are interdependent. Therefore it should be self-evident that people and forests should not be neglected when thinking about all of the SDGs.”

Unfortunately, I have too often seen landscape approaches and business decisions fail to incorporate the voices of local and indigenous peoples who know best. This undercuts the very principles that FLR represents.

For example, when navigating the intricate ways of FLR finance, which in and of itself is a complicated issue, development initiatives such as REDD+ have been known to sideline local communities (and unnecessarily so). This is particularly damaging, as a recent Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) report shows, for more marginalized groups within these communities, including indigenous peoples and women.

The collapse of the Xepian – Xe Nam Noy dam last month in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) reminds us of the tragic ramifications for local communities when large-scale hydropower projects fail to incorporate their needs and desires. Although such an example does not fit into the traditional paradigm of “international development,” it still raises an unfortunate point: local people are often the ones impacted most severely when business or development operations fail.

Oftentimes a result of poor communication and misunderstanding, these disasters can be remedied by incorporating local conservation knowledge and securing land rights, both of which are the necessary predecessors to the sustainable management of forests.

“Indigenous stories, as an expression of local cultural values, beliefs, and knowledge, reveal conceptualizations of nature-cultural interrelations that differ from Western epistemologies,” notes Alvaro Fernandez-Llamazares in a research study co-written with Mar Cabeza. The interrelationality expressed in local forms of knowledge provides an irreplaceable base to conserve natural environments as it can “transmit the idea of living landscapes with spiritual dimensions.”

Yet Western epistemologies still persist in conservation throughout the world to the detriment of local livelihoods and global conservation efforts. In 2012, 400 members of the Karen people were removed from the Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand. Just recently, Thailand’s Supreme Administrative Court noted that they had no proof of ownership to the land they consider a birthright, and thus, had no claim to the land.

The Center for People and Forests – RECOFTC recognizes the need to locate people at the center of sustainable forest management, whether it is in REDD+, national parks, or forestry laws. As Warangkana Rattanarat wrote in an op-ed following the passage of Thailand’s Community Forestry (CF) draft bill, community-based forestry is an “approach to forest management, not simply a geographic designation.”

Rattanarat’s apt motto has been the foundation of our projects as well. The Voices for Mekong Forests (V4MF) project, funded by the EU, seeks to strengthen the voices of non-state actors in the Greater Mekong Subregion. By strengthening the voices of those who are on the ground, we can improve forest governance.

The correlation between non-state actors, stronger voices, and improved governance was reinforced in a recent forest governance and capacity needs assessment conducted by V4MF. In the corresponding report, it was clear that local people need a more robust say in forest governance, as laws are simply not enough to ensure the proper maintenance of forests.

In addition, RECOFTC –The Center for People and Forests has recently launched a new project that emphasizes the role local people have in climate change mitigation, adaptation, and biodiversity conservation. FLOURISH, which is funded by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Energy (BMU) of Germany under the International Climate Initiative (IKI) is rooted in the principles of FLR. For this IKI project, this means pursuing an authentic and reliable FLR approach, one that restores the ecological functionality of the landscape, enhances the landscape’s productivity and biodiversity, and consequently supports ecosystem services and promotes a system of multiple co-benefits.

The underlying philosophy of FLOURISH, however, reflects a larger trend that needs to be considered: how are corporations, consumers, and governments connected to all of this? Much of the design of FLOURISH is to be achieved through sustained community-private sector partnerships, which in turn answers the question about how to engage with this very important sector to the Center.

As members of a global community, we should require our products to be sustainably sourced from communities who have been made aware of their rights, are in partnership with business, and are not contributing to deforestation. Corporations themselves have a responsibility to engage in these types of practices, and governments have a responsibility to protect the local people from exploitation.

The extent of humanity’s connection to forests, whether you live in a rural community or urban jungle, is dense, and we believe that exploring this connection, which we are currently doing with the People and Forests Forum (PFF), is important for any change and social movement to take place.

We must reconnect.

Between the PFF, V4MF, FLOURISH and other projects, RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests remains committed to people-based solutions to sustainably sourced products and well managed integrated landscapes.

Yet the global community cannot do this and achieve the 2030 Agenda, its SDGs, and other global commitments until we recognize the interdependence of people and forests in a landscape context, placing both at the epicenter of any development project.

Without informed and responsible people, there will be no landscapes. Without healthy landscapes, there are no people.