OPINION: The climate change frontline: farmers and forest communities

by Martin Noponen | Rainforest Alliance
Tuesday, 30 April 2019 14:15 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: An area of the Xingu National Park in the Amazon rainforest, which has been slashed and burnt, is seen next to a section of virgin forest, in Mato Grosso, Brazil, October 4, 2015. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

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

The future of global food supply and livelihoods of millions of people depend on bolder action from governments and industry to invest in forests and other natural climate solutions

Martin Noponen, Director, Climate, Rainforest Alliance.

While the devastating consequences of climate change may seem distant to some, many farmers and producers are already living in the wake of rising temperatures, drought and increasingly capricious weather.

Higher temperatures can reduce flower and fruit production, damage plant cells, lead to high seedling mortality, and cause wilting of leaves leading to reduced photosynthesis and ultimately to a reduction in yields. Farmers, whose livelihoods are intricately linked to the natural environment and thus rely on stable and predictable weather conditions, are also contesting with drought, unpredictable rainfall, wildfires, hurricanes and floods. Changing and more extreme weather patterns can also exacerbate the dynamics and spread of pests and diseases to new regions, damaging, and even completely decimating their crops.

The effects of climate change are disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable regions of the world. People in these countries are often heavily dependent on agriculture and forests as their main livelihood source yet are increasingly challenged in their ability to maintain them; a change in the suitability of growing conditions can have significant repercussions on livelihoods, food production, and the overall economic and sustainable development of local communities. Additional pressure on forests and biodiversity will mount, as production will often be displaced onto previously uncultivated land.

Thus, for farmers and forest-dependent communities, climate change impacts can have a detrimental effect on their crop growing seasons and as a result, affect yield potentials.

As a result, farmers have had no choice but to address the many challenges posed by changing climatic conditions by creating more favourable production conditions through planting new trees, introducing new and more resilient crop varieties and prioritising good soil management, for instance. In addition, although well versed in good agricultural practices, farmers often need support to identify the most suitable strategies to address their challenges through prioritising risk-targeted interventions. For instance, utilising  predictions of climate change impacts, and building corresponding adaptation strategies suited to local conditions can help  secure the long-term future and resilience of agricultural production systems, and therefore farmer livelihoods.

However, in order to achieve global food security and ensure we can feed growing populations, more action is required to both mitigate and adapt to climate change, and this is where forests come into play. These natural ecosystems are crucial to keep average global warming temperature increase under the 1.5 degrees Celsius recommended in the IPCC’s latest report, and to fighting the effects of climate change. Forests regulate ecosystems, protect and harbour biodiversity, and have an unrivalled ability to absorb and store carbon, capturing carbon dioxide.

Research shows that intact forests act as important carbon sinks – for example between 1980 and 2010 across Amazonia mature forests have more than mitigated the fossil fuel emissions of seven Amazonian countries combined. Their contribution is unquestionable. But taking advantage of the carbon-storing potential of forests relies on a dedicated effort to stop deforestation and repair the damage already done. Unfortunately, the importance of protecting and restoring our forests is often overlooked by governments and industry. Whilst countries and companies are increasingly acknowledging the importance of protecting and restoring our forests, translating this into actions is still proving to be a  difficult task and progress is slow.

Instead of being used to their potential as a solution, forests are still being degraded and logged, often illegally, around the world. Land use and land use change including deforestation emits almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is virtually double the emissions from all transport, and almost equivalent to emissions from electricity and heat production. Around half of these emissions come from the seven million hectares of forest lost every year through deforestation and forest degradation.

More resources must be directed to supporting farmers and forest communities to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. By doing so, we will invest directly into our future food supply and helping to fight climate change. Governments and industry have a great opportunity and responsibility to help mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change. They may do this through for example providing better enabling conditions to spur on the needed change. Or through including greater focus on natural climate solutions in their  nationally determined contributions under the Paris climate agreement.

Protecting and restoring our forests and improving land management will ensure farmers, and you and me will have access to cleaner water, cleaner air and more fertile soil. It will help stabilise local microclimates – which is key to securing a future for farmers. This, in turn, will further reduce the risk of deforestation, because having more resilient and sustainable livelihoods means farmers will have less of a reason to expand into forested areas.

More than ever before, the future of global food supply and the livelihoods of millions of people around the world depend on bolder action from governments and industry to invest in forests and other natural climate solutions. Missing this opportunity  would  bring a natural, and human, catastrophe which we must and can avoid.