A call to forest conservation under transformative change

By Pablo Pacheco, Global Forest Lead Scientist, WWF.

© Jiri Rezac / WWF-UK

The IPBES Global Assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services serves up a new reminder that transformative change is critical if we want nature to continue contributing to people’s health and wellbeing. Forests are a vital part of the solution, and we need bold and urgent action from across sectors to effectively reverse the tide of forest loss and to ensure that forests are valued.

The IPBES report highlights land use as one of the major drivers of change in nature and one that has the largest global impact. It also stresses that the land transformed for human uses has increased by 7 per cent in the past 20 years, and that half of the agricultural expansion has occurred at the expense of forests, particularly in the tropics. This forest conversion has stimulated economic growth, but has also led to contradictory social outcomes, and threatens the ecosystem services provided by forests.

Forests constitute a significant portion of terrestrial ecosystems — they not only play a critical role in global carbon cycles and climate change, but also provide multiple direct local benefits such as soil protection, nutrient and water cycling, and habitat for wildlife. The food, materials for construction and wood fuel that forests supply support the livelihoods of local people living in or near the forests, fulfil the material needs of urban dwellers, and sustain industrial and service economies.

Some estimates suggest that overall tree cover, including plantations, has increased since the early 1980s, and simultaneously the net rate of total forest loss has halved in the last two decades. Yet, as the IPBES assessment indicates, forests in the tropics are suffering from increasing pressure on land associated with demand for food, feed and fibre. The total area of high-biodiversity tropical forests keeps decreasing at a relatively high rate. Commodities expanding at the expense of forests supply not only global food systems that depend heavily on a narrow number of agricultural and high-value tree crops, but also cater to the rapidly growing domestic demand in producing countries.

© naturepl.com / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWF

The impact that commercial agriculture — commodities such as soy and palm oil — as well as beef, cocoa and pulp and paper have on tropical forest conversion has been extensively documented. This expansion is associated with multiple drivers. Deforestation is facilitated by the development of roads, fiscal and other incentives, and investments in processing facilities, often in response to market demand and prices. For some crops such as cocoa and oil palm, commercial agriculture involve a large number of smallholders, who often face constraints to improve their production and environmental performance.

In many regions, it is still more financially lucrative to convert forests than to keep them standing, and the full value of forests and the solutions they can provide is not recognized. Converting forests to agriculture is still seen as an effective formula to foster economic growth and rural development.

Moreover, in places beyond the agricultural frontier, converting lands to agriculture tends to justify tenure rights, which rewards speculative land acquisition, thus undermining forest conservation.

Furthermore, extractive industries including oil and mining operations have created additional pressure on forests. These pressures are mainly indirect since these operations, along with the development of agricultural plantations, tend to attract significant numbers of immigrants to frontier areas and may threaten local people’s tenure rights. Extractive industries also contribute to opening up the occupation of intact forests or facilitate encroachment on protected areas in more isolated locations.

© Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden

Moving beyond business as usual

Many efforts, particularly in the tropics, have been spent to support sustainable forest management and halt forest conversion, yet they have not necessarily proved effective given the magnitude of the forces at play. These efforts have been associated with trade, such as FLEGT, climate solutions, such as REDD+, as well as specific market-based institutional constraints (e.g. soy moratorium). In addition, zero deforestation commitments by companies along with other supply initiatives constitute a promising option to halt forest conversion, but face significant challenges in practice.

Some critical problems that have emerged are associated with “leakage” effects since halting deforestation in one region may trigger forest conversion in other regions — as in Brazil, where stricter forest protection in the Amazon has apparently led to increased agricultural expansion in the Cerrado. In addition, as result of ”telecoupling” effects, the gains in one region may lead to losses in others due to the increased connectivity of global markets, and the lack of governance frameworks to deal with these effects. China’s forest cover increase, for example, is likely related to multiple telecoupling processes.

The IPBES report, building on an improved understanding of global land-use dynamics, makes a strong case for more comprehensive governance solutions that embrace common goals and shared responsibilities. A key contribution is the identification of leverage points, such as reducing total consumption and waste, looking for greater equity, justice and inclusion in conservation, and ensuring that technology, education, innovation and finance are available to support transitions to sustainability.

© Greg Armfield / WWF-UK

Embracing transformative change

There is no doubt about the urgency of transformative change claimed by the IPBES assessment. Yet, the solutions suggested for forests read as more of the same: support reforestation and restoration of degraded forest habitats; promote and strengthen community-based management and co-management; implement forest certification, payments for environmental services and REDD+; and increase efficiency in forest product use, including incentives for adding value to forest products.

While all those actions are needed, actual change will come from actions outside the forest realm, and may likely be associated with more responsible finance and investment, corporate accounting of natural capital, more sustainable and healthier food systems, recognition of tenure rights and inclusive conservation, greater attention to forest-based climate solutions, and demand for sustainable wood.

The IPBES assessment provides the basis for informing more robust thinking on the range of solutions available and the leverage points. What is needed now is action on the ground and leadership on implementing bold solutions, which may not be easy, but are necessary for the future of our one planet. These solutions, to be durable, have to look for a careful balance in the distribution of costs and sharing of benefits to avoid putting the burden on less developed regions and more vulnerable social groups.

For more information on the #GlobalAssesment report: lp.panda.org/ipbes