Five Lessons For Sustaining Global Forests

As the old adage suggests, it is important to see the forests for more than just the trees. While an estimated 500 million people depend directly on forests for their livelihoods, the entire world depends on them for food, water, clean air, and vital medicines. Forests also absorb carbon dioxide, making them critical to curbing climate change. 

Despite some encouraging anti-deforestation efforts in places like BrazilIndonesia, and Africa, globally, forests are under threat, particularly in the tropics. Between 2000 and 2010, nearly 13 million hectares of forests were lost every year. About 30 percent of the global forest cover has been completely cleared, and 20 percent has been degraded. 

This dilemma begs the question: What is the outlook for forests in 2030? Are we missing the opportunity to preserve forests and ensure they continue to deliver the goods and services we need for a growing global population? How can we use forests to build a thriving global green economy? 

Asking these questions is important. Finding answers to the challenges they raise is imperative. 

5 Lessons from the World Forest Summit 

On March 5-6, I attended the World Forest Summit, run by The Economist magazine. At the event, leaders from the private sector, research organizations, NGOs, and government considered these questions and identified common ground to preserve and support forests worldwide. The discussion highlighted five lessons that are critical for properly managing and protecting global forests. 

1) Understand the Value of Forests 

At the heart of the deforestation problem lies the fact that forests are often seen only for their immediate market value. There is a failure to recognize the wealth of services they provide at no cost—from carbon sequestration and water filteringto food and recreation. However, deriving economic value for forest services is not easy, as it requires fundamentally changing how we incorporate “ecosystem services” into the current economic model. Markets for ecosystem services have emerged over the past decade, but growth has been slow. We must find ways to better communicate the economic value of our forests. In the meantime, we can focus on global commodities and the actors that cause deforestation and degradation through their supply chains. 

2) Manage Forests for the People and with the People 

Even if forests are managed to maximize their long-term economic value, how do we make sure forest-dependent communities receive the benefits? We must recognize the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples and involve them in the decision-making processes that affect the forests they directly depend on for their livelihoods. These groups have a close relationship with forests and can be effective leaders in forest conservation. For example, some communities in Latin America are actively monitoring their forests and halting illegal logging

3) Halt the Illegal Timber Trade 

The forest industry can and should be part of the deforestation solution. Demand for sustainably produced forest products will create an incentive to properly manage forests and preserve forested lands. Stronger legal frameworks in the forest sector are a good first step, and an increased demand for legal forest products in the global marketplace—as illustrated by the amendment of the U.S. Lacey Act and the passage of the European Timber Regulation—is a positive development. However, enforcement of these regulations is critical. It’s important to minimize the transactional cost for companies who play by the rules and ease the confusion brought by many legality requirements. 

4) Find Opportunities in Restoration 

Forest restoration offers tremendous opportunities to counteract deforestation and generate additional benefits. As much as 1 billion hectares of cleared and degraded forests can be restored back to forests and other productive landscapes like forest plantations or agroforestry systems. Forest restoration efforts can be carried out with and for local people while delivering economic and social benefits. For example, the African Re-greening Initiative work with an increasing number of farmers in Africa to protect and manage natural regeneration of trees to build agroforestry systems. 

5) Develop New Partnerships for Forests 

New alliances with actors inside and outside the forest sector will be needed to successfully preserve forests, as the main drivers of deforestation lie outside the forests in many cases. The forest products, agricultural, mining, infrastructure, pharmaceutical, and financial industries, along with civil society organizations and governments, all depend on forests and thus, have a role to play. Inspiring examples of this multi-stakeholder approach are emerging, such as the Canadian Boreal Forest Initiative (a collaboration between NGOs and forest industries) and from the Consumer Goods Forum’spledge to achieve zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020. 

How forest stakeholders respond to these five issues will play a big role in shaping the future of forests. As His Royal Highness Prince Charles said in his videotaped remarks at the conference, “Put simply, and whether we like it or not, forests matter, deeply. In fact, we would be doomed without them.” It is now up to all of us to articulate the importance of forests, push and expand the approaches that are working, and forge creative alliances to ensure that forests are sustained for current and future generations.