Sustainable Forestry: helping the planet to breathe

Fiona Harvey

Solutions to many of the world’s concerns about climate change are not necessarily hard to identify or even expensive to deliver. Protecting its existing forest cover is one evident solution, but if governments are serious about conservation, they urgently need to come up with effective regulation and begin supporting projects that will work to prevent further unnecessary deforestation or forest degradation.

About 16km inland from the Amazon River, near the village of Juruti in the heart of Brazil’s rainforest, a set of tyre tracks leads off the narrow track, heading further into the dense trees. By the side of the tracks, small trees and undergrowth have been tossed to one side. But a few kilometres further on we find the real prize: a small clearing has been made, with trees felled and undergrowth removed over a few square metres. The damage is greatest on one side – trees seem to have been bent over and crushed, and dragged around by some very large, tall object.

This is the site where a Brazil nut tree was felled and removed from the forest by illegal loggers. It is the new face of an old practice. Instead of felling every sort of tree across an area, the loggers move in to extract the most valuable species, remove it while leaving relatively little other damage, and clear out as quickly as possible. They repeat this across wide areas, and manage to avoid the law because in the vastness of the forest the activities barely show up even under satellite monitoring.

Brazil nut trees – the ‘kings of the forest’, enormously tall and strong – are not only essential to the ecology of the rainforest, but they also play home to a large number of animal species from jaguars to monkeys, and their nuts are one of the main staple foods of indigenous peoples. Tribes conserve and even revere these trees. When they look after the forest, Brazil nut trees flourish, and in their shadow lesser species also thrive.

As the Brazilian loggers show, sustainable forestry is under threat around the world. Indigenous people are being cleared off their land to make room for cattle ranches in Brazil, palm oil plantations in Malaysia, pulp and paper operations in South-East Asia, and logging in the Democratic Republic of Congo. No major rainforest region in the world is unscathed.

Yet our forests are essential not just to the people who live in them, but to the whole of the planet. They supply us with a wide range of products, from timber to honey, and even more importantly, with invisible ‘ecosystem services’. Forests play a key role in holding topsoil and land together – as has been tragically evident in Haiti deforested slopes are much more prone to mudslides – and they help to maintain the health of watersheds. In Brazil, the forests help provide the rest of the continent with rain, enabling the vast agricultural output the country enjoys. In South-East Asia, the destruction of forests is helping to expose peatland, which is burned and causes vast smogs.

All over the world, forests act as natural cleansers and as the lungs of the planet. Forests can even help to protect people against the ravages of climate change. During the 2004 Asian tsunami, it quickly became evident that coastal areas where the mangrove swamps had been cleared for prawn farms were far more vulnerable to the great waves than areas where the mangroves were intact. They acted as an effective natural barrier.

“Solutions are at hand if we choose to make use of them,” says Rebecca Chacko, senior director for climate policy at Conservation International. “Nature’s inherent defence systems can help societies survive and adapt to the impacts of global climate change. Ecosystem-based adaptation measures, which strengthen so-called green infrastructure by building resilience in ecosystems such as mangroves, forests, watersheds and coral reefs, are among the most immediate and cost-effective means we have to protect people.”

Deforestation is responsible for at least 16 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Preserving forests and managing them in a sustainable manner is by far the cheapest way of cutting carbon dioxide. Reforesting areas that have already been destroyed or degraded is also cheap, at less than $1 a tree in some areas. So one might have expected sustainable forestry to play a key role at the most recent climate change conference in Doha, Qatar. Discussions were tabled on the UN mechanism for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, known for short as REDD+, which is the world’s only international system for paying people to keep forests standing and to reforest damaged areas.

But decisions on REDD+ were put off for another year, in part because of a failure to sort out how countries could account for their greenhouse gas emissions. It was a serious setback, not least because forestry has long been one of the few areas of the annual international climate change talks on which countries could broadly agree.

“REDD+ provides us with one of our best chances to lessen the effects of climate change in the immediate term, while simultaneously saving threatened species and bringing social benefits to communities in forested nations,” says Chacko. “This was the first time talks on REDD+ broke down.”

The aim had been to move the system from the current rather piecemeal approach – with many projects around the world but little coordination among them – to a more global approach that would help to scale up the system and make it more effective. Hopes of doing so have been deferred once more.

With all the obvious benefits, why do we not make more use of sustainable forestry? Ian Duff of Greenpeace points to several factors. “Initiatives to protect forests continue to struggle to keep pace with agricultural expansion and its insatiable appetite for land,” he says. “Poor application of national laws, certification schemes and corporate commitments mean that too often forests are being cleared in an unsustainable way.”

Sustainable forestry is perfectly possible, and is practised in some places with great success. It allows people to exploit forests – for instance, for food and timber – without destroying the biodiversity or ecology. So the sustainable management of a Brazilian rainforest might involve harvesting products such as honey and nuts, and some trees, but would certainly not allow the selective removal of Brazil nut trees, as the illegal loggers do.

But the application of sustainable forestry management depends on technical know-how, the availability of finance, and most of all political will – which is needed to draw up legislation mandating forest protection, enforce those regulations and put in place monitoring systems to eliminate illegal logging. It seems that, in this case as with so many environmental problems, political will is in short supply.

Chacko says the scale of the task is daunting for governments. “We are talking about transformational change here. But trans formational change is what we need. Our survival depends on it.”

If agricultural expansion is one of the greatest threats to sustainable forestry, it is especially evident in the case of palm oil. In the past decade, palm oil has become a sort of wonder product for a variety of consumer industries. So versatile is this oil that it is found in products from shampoos and soaps to crisps and bread – in fact, one in ten products in the average supermarket is estimated to contain palm oil. Most of the time, you would never know it’s there.

Growing palm oil is not in itself problematic. It becomes a problem when pristine natural forest is cleared to make room for the plantations, and that has unfortunately been the pattern in South East Asian countries, where the boom in palm oil demand has sparked a corresponding frenzy of clearance, deforestation and monoculture. Palm oil plantations can often result in the displacement of indigenous forest peoples, and they certainly provide nothing like the home for biodiversity that real forests do.

“Palm oil plantations continue to be one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, and with a new palm oil frontier developing in Africa, palm oil’s role in deforestation is set to increase,” says Duff. His views are echoed by Nils Hermann Ranum, head of the policy and campaign division of the Rainforest Foundation Norway. “Especially in South-East Asia, the expansion of palm oil has been causing massive forest destruction… The expansion of palm oil plantations that replace natural forests must end, and instead production must be intensified in areas already in use.”

Stephen Leonard, president of the Climate Justice Programme, believes palm oil producers would do better to ensure their plantations are on land already degraded or deforested, rather than clearing new land for the purpose. He says: “There is a significant amount of degraded land available for the planting of palm oil plantations and this is a requirement for palm oil sustainability certification. However, in Malaysia for example, the costs of changing from unsustainable practices to meet the requirements for sustainable practices cannot be met by local small land-holders farming palm oil.”

Sections of the palm oil industry have come together to respond to green concerns, forming the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This seeks to ensure that plantations are properly managed, are not placed on recently cleared land and preserve biodiversity. It provides assurances to consumers, and a labelling service for producers, so that they can certify they comply with good practice.

But is it enough? Greenpeace’s Duff thinks not. “The RSPO has still not been able to break the link between palm oil, deforestation and climate change,” he says. “Until the RSPO standards recognise the impact the palm oil industry has on our climate, it won’t be possible to class RSPO palm oil as sustainable. This is a major problem for companies who have been relying on the RSPO for an off-the-shelf solution to an issue that greatly interests their customers.” For consumers, then, ethical supermarket shopping will continue to be a minefield.

Using land that has already been degraded means that it can be restored to something like its previous state. The aim of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in its 2012 Bonn Challenge commitment, is to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020. By the time of the Doha conference last November, there were commitments from landowners and governments to restore about a third of that total.

Carole Saint-Laurent, senior policy officer for forest landscape restoration at IUCN, says: “A restored landscape allows for different land uses to coexist: from agriculture, to forests managed for timber, fuel and fruit, and protected wildlife reserves, to areas managed for the protection of water supplies. The goal is to revitalise the landscapes so it can meet the needs of both people and nature, sustainably.”

Any break in the pattern of deforestation is good news, and Brazil has managed to reduce its deforestation rates to the lowest level since it started monitoring them 24 years ago. Ranum of the Rainforest Foundation says: “Brazil’s successful approach includes improved forest governance, not reducing deforestation measures to an isolated project-by-project approach. Brazil’s experience has also shown that the best way to protect forests is by giving user rights to indigenous peoples and local communities, which has proven to be more efficient than establishing protected areas.”

Ranum also points to Indonesia, which is trying to do the same. “There is a promising discussion at national level to reform the forest sector. A moratorium on new licences in intact natural forests was enacted two years ago, and may be extended. Indonesia needs to examine the legality of existing concessions, as well as extending the moratorium.”

Brazil’s success shows how important it is to have strong governmental support for forest initiatives. However, Brazil has also come under fire for proposed changes to its forest code that would allow greater levels of deforestation, as some landowners have been demanding. One danger of government regulation is that it can be reversed.

Regulation is not just needed in forested countries, notes Leonard of the Climate Justice Programme. “In developed countries, [we need to] address the demand for wood products and implement legal reforms to prevent the importation of illegally obtained timber,” he says. In Europe, the EU is to start implementing new timber regulations from March, designed to keep illegal timber and products derived from it out of Europe. There is an urgent need for such regulation: in 2012, Greenpeace conducted an in-depth investigation of Asia Pulp & Paper, one of the biggest plantation owners in the world, and using DNA analysis found evidence of the company using wood from a protected tree species that found its way into paper products sold in developed countries by companies including American-owned fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Tesco, a major UK supermarket chain.

For consumers, there is a certification to look for that should ensure the products labelled are coming from sustainable forestry sources. Duff recommends the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) trademark, which ensures that any timber harvested from a forest does not impact on the forest’s biodiversity, ecological or social value. Equally important are looking out for palm oil hidden in products, paying attention to the provenance of forest products and lobbying MPs for tougher regulations.

Pursuing sustainable forestry can help the world tackle climate change, conserve biodiversity, help indigenous peoples and ensure the long-term health of the planet. But such concerns risk being ignored by governments whose thinking tends to be short term and tied to the electoral cycle. Says Chacko: “When it comes down to it, countries just aren’t doing the maths. If they did, they would see the wisdom in funding climate solutions [such as sustainable forestry] rather than paying huge bills after climate catastrophes strike.”

About the author:

Fiona Harvey is Environment Correspondent at The Guardian


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