Forest protection efforts can't see the wood for the trees

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 24 January 2011 17:24 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Study urges new approach to bridge wide gaps between top-level negotiations and experimentation on the ground

It's rather unusual for reports on international systems to recommend more, not less, complexity. But that's the thrust of an in-depth assessment of the way the world is attempting to manage forests, issued on Monday by the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO).

The study says international efforts to slow deforestation should be expanded from a narrow focus on using trees to help fight climate change or preserving species. They should do more to take local needs into account, and address growing global demand for food crops and biofuels, as well as land scarcity. Otherwise they could backfire - failing to stop environmental degradation and even worsening poverty.

Jeremy Rayner, a University of Saskatchewan professor who chaired the panel of 60 or so experts behind the analysis, told AlertNet most of the different elements required to create a more effective international framework to govern the planet's forests already exist, but they are fragmented and lack coherence.

"If we break down what is happening now in terms of issues, there are very few gaps, but the key is how to make all that work better together," he said. "The whole is rather less than the sum of its parts at the moment."

The report identifies "the wide gaps that have opened up between high-level negotiation on one side of the divide and experimentation on the ground on the other", a key reason why people involved in protecting dwindling forests are not learning from each other's experiences.

The challenge, it says, is to shift away from top-down efforts that promote simplified solutions. What's needed instead is a broad approach to "complex forest problems" that include a wider range of sectors - agriculture, transport and energy - and organisations that work on relevant areas, such as certification of sustainable wood products or indigenous people's rights.

But this isn't happening at the international level, where initiatives have tended to focus on one aspect of what forests do - offering opportunities for eco-tourism, fostering biodiversity, or acting as a sink to store carbon, according to Rayner.

The political scientist says the latest version of the U.N.-led programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in developing countries (REDD+), which includes the role of conservation and sustainable management of forests, is an improvement on earlier efforts. But he argues it is not an instrument capable of governing forests because it still focuses too narrowly on their role in storing carbon.

"We are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past, when we thought forests were there to provide a habitat for photogenic species, or a giant woodshed for lumber," he said. "We have to look at the threats from outside the sector. If we don't address them, then we won't achieve the goal of REDD - carbon sequestration."

The carbon stored in forest biomass, deadwood, litter and soil is estimated to be double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere - hence the emphasis on stopping forests being cut down as a way of limiting greenhouse gas emissions and the global warming they are causing.

Yet Constance McDermott, a fellow at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, warned that if REDD does not go beyond protecting and pricing the carbon stored in forests, it will lead to "further exclusion of indigenous people from their forests and the criminalisation of their traditional livelihoods".

The report authors warn that local communities could be turfed off their land - to which they often have little more than customary rights - by governments and individuals hoping to take advantage of REDD's forest-based carbon credits.


The report proposes a new holistic framework called "forests+" that would reorient most international initiatives to support and coordinate national and regional work, foster a more inclusive way of operating, and pursue global accords only when a top-down approach is broadly demanded.

"Instead of generating 'grand plans' based on the simplification of complex problems on a global scale, we might be better advised to listen and learn from existing efforts, both public and private, across multiple scales and multiple sectors," McDermott said in a statement.

The study singles out the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an example of a regional initiative that has actively engaged in forest issues, including developing a standard for monitoring illegal logging and establishing a clearing house for research.

"What is missing from current efforts is not so much the capacity to generate knowledge as the capacity to communicate it and to translate it into policy," said a briefing for policy-makers based on the report's findings. "Access to the centres of power will be indispensable."

To that end, it proposes a global approach to knowledge management, including the establishment of a comprehensive clearing-house mechanism for forest research, together with networks to allow useful local lessons to feed up to the policy level and a flexible set of widely agreed goals and guidelines that provide overall direction.

The authors do not say exactly how the international system should change to build consensus and facilitate learning, but give three options: build on an existing institution such as the U.N. Forum on Forests, where their report will be presented in New York in the coming days; form a collaborative partnership between institutions and actors; or set up a new institution, as the U.N. secretary-general has done with advisory boards and special offices that seek to energise work on a particular issue like water and sanitation.

In the absence of a binding global deal on climate change that includes forests, Rayner said people should not wait around to see how U.N. negotiations shape up in the coming years, but should start spreading the word about what works when it comes to halting deforestation in a way that improves the condition of forests and the livelihoods of their inhabitants.

"We've seen consultation until people are sick of consultation," he said. "We need to look at practices, identify those that are successful on the ground, and then scale them up."

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