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Ignoring forests won’t bring Rio+20’s ‘future we want’, by Louis Verchot

In June 2012 around 40,000 participants are expected to attend one of the most important environmental gatherings in a generation – Rio+20. A draft agenda has been released, bearing the slogan “The Future We Want”. It identifies seven critical issues for new sustainable development goals that will be released in Rio: jobs, energy, cities, food, water, oceans and disasters.

But with forests only mentioned briefly in the text and in isolation to other key issues, will Rio+20 really help develop a future we want?

Forests make up 31 per cent of the world’s entire land mass. The resources they provide are essential to the daily livelihood of almost 1.6 billion people – more than a quarter of the world’s population.

They are key to many ecosystem services, including mitigating and adapting to climate change, influencing weather patterns, capturing and storing carbon, providing food and fuelwood for many poor and vulnerable communities, supporting biodiversity and generating employment.

The absence of forests from this year’s agenda is remarkable. The first Rio meeting put a very big emphasis on forests and subsequently set the stage for all major international environmental agreements, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biodiversity.

While it is important that the Rio+20 meeting explore new ground and address the emerging problems of the 21st century, policymakers must recognise that forests are essential to all of the major challenges that are on the table for this meeting. For example, the program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) has played a big role in international negotiations by helping to integrate forests into the solution to climate change. Through this mechanism, we now have serious prospects for progress that we have not had during the past two decades.

Research by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and others has shown that forests have instrumental but under-appreciated roles to play in all seven key areas to be discussed at Rio+20.

Forests and jobs

Forest resources are essential to the daily livelihoods of about a billion people. A recent global study by CIFOR’s Poverty and Environment Network found that forest income makes up almost one-quarter of total household income for people living in or near forests. It is more significant than the amount they earn from agriculture.

Many existing tools for assessing poverty and income – such as the World Bank’s Living Standard Measurement Survey – fall short in capturing the importance of the income from natural resources. The true value of forests in the livelihoods of the world’s rural poor remains largely invisible.

Forests and energy

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in some parts of Africa woodfuels account for almost 90 per cent of primary energy consumption. Scientists believe that deforestation across the Horn of Africa, particularly for firewood harvest, has been a major contributor to the pervasive drought in the region.

Furthermore, fluctuating oil prices and growing concerns about climate change have led to a renewed commitment to renewable energy. This is pushing up demand for biofuels such as those produced from palm oil, jatropha and soy. Cultivating these fuel crops contributes to the loss of forests, which reduces and even eliminates these fuels’ positive impact on the atmosphere.

Forests and food

Forests are a nutritional bounty. In rural areas of the Congo Basin, for example, many communities depend on wild meat hunted in forests for up to 80 per cent of the fat and protein in their diets.

Forests also provide goods and services that support the agricultural sector by providing homes for the bees, bats, and other pollinators of agricultural crops. With agricultural commodity prices already at an all-time high and set to stay that way for another decade, the sustainable intensification of agriculture to ensure secure future food supplies and reduce negative environmental impacts will not be possible without also preserving our forests.

Forests and water

Water is a renewable resource. Yet, the profligacy with which it has been used, the speed of human population growth, and the increasing per capita demands for water together mean that provision of adequate, safe supplies is now a major source of concern, expense and international tension.

Forested catchments are vital sources of fresh water for human use. They supply an estimated 75 per cent of usable water globally. Loss of forests has been blamed for everything from flooding to aridity and for catastrophic reductions of water quality.

Forests and cities

In many developing urban centres, wood charcoal is the fuel of choice. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital, the proportion of households using wood charcoal as the primary source energy rose from 47 to 71 per cent between 2002 and 2007.

Global trade in forest products, which occurs primarily in urban centres, is a lucrative enterprise. It reached a total value of $327 billion in 2004 (or 3.7 per cent of global trade in all commodity products according to the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs).

Forests and oceans

Coastal ecosystems – such as mangrove forests – are critical to curb the effects of climate change. About 20 per cent of the worlds’ mangroves have been destroyed in the last 25 years. This has led to the release of centuries of accumulated carbon and disturbed the coast’s natural protection against storm surges and other weather events.

Mangroves are also important to coastal fisheries, with many species of fish and crustaceans using mangrove forests as nurseries for their young. Recent studies have documented the fisheries decline due to mangrove deforestation and the consequent loss of economic welfare among coastal communities in Thailand, Indonesia, and Mexico.

Forests and disasters

In 2006, rural communities in East Kalimantan, Indonesia were devastated by a catastrophic flash flood that buried thousands of homes and rice fields under two meters of water. Nearby forests played a crucial role in providing basic subsistence to vulnerable communities for many months following the disaster. Furthermore, timber harvesting can affect landslide occurrence. If there had been more forests on steep slopes in East Kalimantan, it could have helped to slow the flow of and retain some of the rainwater.

It’s clear that forests are ever more crucial to the problems that are on the table at this discussion. Rio+20 offers the opportunity to discuss forests in the context of some of the world’s most pressing problems and integrate them into the solutions. The background documents do not reflect the important contributions that forests can make toward solving the problems that are on the table.

There will be several preparatory meetings for Rio+20 over the course of the next few months; these offer the opportunity to correct the unfortunate lack of attention to forests in the Rio+20 agenda.

Leaving forests out of the equation will only ensure that Rio+20’s problems do not get fully solved.

Louis Verchot is leader of Climate Change Mitigation Research at Centre for International Forestry Research.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

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