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A new decade has started, and international attention to forests seems at an all-time high. The 2010s were a decade of ambitious international commitments. The Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the New York Declaration on Forests, and the Warsaw REDD+ Agreement—all stress the need to conserve and restore millions of hectares of forests. Still, throughout the 2010s, deforestation rates have remained high. The 2020s will reveal whether these commitments will actually have an effect. Here René Boot, Director of Tropenbos International, reflects on the longer-term trends, and looks ahead at what lies in front of us.
To understand how things have changed, we will have to go back a bit further. In the 20th century, forests were seen as either sources of timber and non-timber forest products, or as protected areas for biodiversity conservation. In the 2000s—and particularly after the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment—the notion of multiple forest services gained ground. It became widely accepted that forests are also crucial for food, water, and the climate. But, in the 2010s, the view started narrowing again. Forests were increasingly seen as a source of carbon. They were put forward as the solution to climate change. That’s not that surprising from a political standpoint, as it is much easier to promote tree planting than it is to convince people to fly less, or to ban fossil fuels all together.
The widespread acknowledgment of the role of forests and trees to mitigate climate change has put forests high on the international agenda, and provides a stimulus for restoration and tree planting activities. This is good news for forests. But there may be downsides as well. Boot worries that, in the years to come, the emphasis will be entirely on the role of forests and trees in climate change mitigation. The result could be that forests are merely seen as a reservoir of carbon, while their importance to food, water and biodiversity is increasingly overlooked.
When forests are primarily seen as a carbon reservoir, it does not matter how they perform on the delivery of other services. Indeed, targets for carbon sequestration may be met most efficiently by developing plantations of fast-growing trees, with very little diversity.
There is nothing wrong with developing tree plantations per se, but there is a risk that natural forest will be seen as an obstacle. All those different species of plants and trees—why would we need them? When all attention and investments are directed to plantations for carbon storage, this could act as an incentive to convert natural forests into plantations. In the long term, natural forests may be limited to relatively small areas—mostly protected areas and Indigenous territories—which are no longer connected to each other. If that happens, we will lose a lot of biodiversity. Moreover, there will be negative consequences for the people living in those areas, who depend on a variety of products and services provided by diverse forested landscapes.
Deforestation, unsustainable land use and climate change are global challenges, and have therefore been major themes in international cooperation for many years. Boot describes how, in the 20th century, international cooperation in the field of natural resource management often took the form of project interventions. These projects were designed and implemented by donors, without meaningful input from the receiving countries, and many projects were discontinued when donor support fell away. In response to the non-committal nature of this form of aid, attention shifted to performance-based approaches in the 2000s, such as REDD+. Through REDD+ schemes, donors pay money if a country can provide evidence that it has reduced rates of deforestation and forest degradation. During the last decade, however, enthusiasm has waned, not least because it became clear that developing international performance-based systems is extremely complicated. Much of the attention shifted from developing adequate measures and policies to measuring results, says Boot.
I think the international community will continue with performance-based approaches, with a key role for REDD+. The problem I have with this approach is that the rules are entirely determined by external actors. It is imposed from the outside, and that may not be viable in the long-term.
Parallel to REDD+, I see the emergence of another way for the international community to promote sustainable forest management in the context of climate objectives—a way where national governments are more firmly in the driving seat. NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions] are an important vehicle for this. In NDCs, national governments set their own mitigation and adaptation goals, and describe how they aim to achieve them. The role of the international community is not to tell countries what to do. Instead, they should support countries with developing and implementing plans to achieve the goals they have set themselves.
In our Working Landscapes programme, we explicitly focus on helping countries develop and implement their NDCs. We do so by assisting governments to carefully consider the views and needs of local people when developing their NDCs, and making sure that plans are based on evidence from the ground. Next to that, as an international network, we ensure that different countries learn from each other regarding best practices, and we use our experiences to inform international policy processes, including those in the EU and the UNFCCC.
Tropenbos International assists countries to achieve the goals they set themselves. But, what if a national government sees its forests purely as a carbon reservoir, with no attention to other forests services? According to Boot it is up to organizations like Tropenbos International to provide alternative policy options and scenarios, helping national governments make well-informed decisions. In doing so, Tropenbos International promotes climate-smart landscapes and the landscape approach, to help minimize trade-offs and maximize synergies between climate, conservation and development objectives.
One of the foundations of the landscape approach is the realization that sustainable natural resource management requires collaboration and coordination between different government agencies—particularly those that deal with forestry, agriculture, food security, water, climate change and nature conservation. This is something most people will easily agree on. Still, conveying what the landscape approach means in practice is sometimes challenging. When I try to explain it, I often present it as a people-centered approach. Start by thinking about what people need. They need staple foods, vegetables, fruits, water, and wood. They need agricultural systems that are resilient, and they need to diversify their risks to be able to cope with shocks and stresses. And then there are higher-level needs as well, such as biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. After identifying these needs, it becomes evident that we require approaches that promote diverse landscapes, providing different products and services. Approaching it from this angle, it is easy to see that landscapes need to be managed deliberately to provide a suite of different functions simultaneously.
Tropenbos International has been promoting the landscape approach, as part of a wider international movement. However, the movement may still be small compared to powerful political and business actors for whom viewing forests as just carbon stocks has its advantages. We therefore continue to advocate for the landscape approach, both as part of the NDCs and elsewhere. Next to that, we will continue to work with partners to implement the approach, and share best practices with the rest of the world. This, I believe, will be key to meeting the international goals set out in the SDGs and the Paris Agreement.