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OPINION: After COVID-19: Building back better for sustainable forests

Monday, 22 June 2020 17:19 GMT

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

We need to recognize that forests are part of the solution

Ewald Rametsteiner, Deputy Director, Forestry Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the globe, forests and forest communities are feeling the pressure.

Forests are already a source of food, income, fuel and shelter for hundreds of millions of people around the world. And when times are tough, many more people in rural areas turn to nature’s supermarkets. They do this for their basic needs and to create alternative incomes, such as foraging for wild foods and collecting fuel for cooking.

This is particularly relevant now, when market disruptions due to COVID-19 are impacting the livelihoods of an estimated 45 million people employed by small and medium-sized forest enterprises worldwide. These enterprises constitute about 80-90 percent of forest businesses, both formal and informal. Jobs and income are being lost, while at the same time young people are returning to rural areas from cities.

There is a real risk that the increased demand on forest resources will lead to overharvesting, forest degradation and biodiversity loss. This risk intensifies if the search for alternative sources of income leads to converting forested land to agriculture.

As countries focus on recovery from the pandemic, there is a danger that they may reduce their commitment to legal and sustainable timber production, potentially undoing hard-earned achievements at national and international level. Without vigilant law enforcement, there will be a surge in illegal activities and fraudulent practices in the timber sector, increased tenure conflicts and weakened independent on-the-ground monitoring activities.

Clearly, we need to take action to prevent COVID-19 from reversing decades of the slow but hard-won progress made towards reducing deforestation and boosting the sustainable production and trade of forest products. Increased deforestation rates would be a serious setback to efforts to meet emissions goals, which are already significantly behind target.   

More importantly, we need to recognize that forests are part of the solution. Managed well, forests are a source of economic prosperity and sustainable development and have a key role to play in social and economic recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So how can we build back better, both with and for sustainable forests? Government representatives and heads of forestry from across the globe are meeting virtually this week to answer this question during a COVID-19 Forestry Webinar Week ,“Building back better: COVID-19 pandemic recovery contributions from the forest sector”, organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And some steps are already clear.

The international community and governments must recognize the critical role of forests for securing livelihoods, particularly for many of the world’s poorest people. They need to ensure that the rights of vulnerable communities are upheld. At the same time, progress towards achieving climate change and global development targets must be safeguarded.

We must support forest-dependent communities to protect themselves and become more resilient. One concrete way to do this is to provide local communities with assistance measures that pay young and unemployed workers to restore degraded ecosystems in and around the community, for example through tree planting. This would not only help reclaim productive land, but – if properly executed and at scale – also restore biodiversity and build carbon storage in soils.

We must maintain momentum in supporting community-based forest management and enterprising small businesses that provide legal and sustainable products. Doing so is a strategically sound and sustainable solution. This involves support for better access to markets.  It also involves protecting them against an influx of illegal products on the market and maintaining the enforcement of internationally agreed regulations on legally harvested timber.

Finally, we also need to recognize that forests with depleted biodiversity, unsustainable wildlife trade, widespread deforestation and landscape degradation create health risks.  Indeed, the mismanagement of forested landscapes and their associated wildlife species has been associated with the spread of viruses and other pathogens that threaten humans, including Ebola, HIV/AIDS and Zika virus. The maintenance of healthy forests, therefore, needs to be an integral part of strategies to reduce the risk of future epidemics.