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Living with forests to achieve sustainability


The United Nations under a broad outlook has stressed on the participation of indigenous peoples towards the long term conservation of primary forests. The viewpoint is that indigenous peoples whose sources of food and livelihood are obtained from forests naturally are concerned with the protection and conservation of forests in the best sense.

By Salam Rajesh

With the United Nations Decade on Biological Diversity (2011-2020) having come to a close last year and now picking up the threads with renewed vigour in pushing ahead with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), the world’s attention is being drawn to the urgency in restoring, restocking and revitalizing the world’s biological diversity to achieve different goals that are universal in perspective while addressing local needs.

Inger Anderson, UNEP’s executive director, says that “deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates, which contribute significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Agricultural expansion continues to be one of the main drivers, while the resilience of human food systems and their capacity to adapt to future change depends on that very biodiversity”.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently published their report, “The State of the World’s Forests 2020 (SOFO)” under the broad theme ‘Forests, Biodiversity and People’ as part of FAO’s The State of the World series. FAO’s Forestry Policy and Resources Division and UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre collaborated to bring out the report which basically looks at how the world addresses issues on biodiversity restoration and conservation in post-2020 scenario.

The year 2020 marks the close of the UN Decade on Biodiversity and the implementation of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. All countries across the globe are coming together to review the progress towards the Plan’s five Strategic Goals and the twenty Aichi Biodiversity Targets to shape the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

The SOFO report stresses that ‘forest biological diversity, which is a broad term that refers to all life forms found within forested areas and the ecological roles they perform, results from evolutionary processes over thousands and even millions of years which, in themselves, are driven by ecological forces such as climate, fire, competition and disturbance’.

The UN’s note on urgency in restoring biodiversity comes from the years of study and observation in field on the growing process of large scale deforestation that induces certain level of desertification in many parts of the world. This induces factors that directly impact the livelihoods of millions of people across the globe while contributing to the process of global warming.

The SOFO report gives a pathetic picture of forests globally. Giving a hard statement, it says that since 1990, around 420 million hectares of forest are estimated to have been lost through conversion to other land uses, and the area of primary forest worldwide decreased by over 80 million hectares. The report states that, ‘more than 100 million hectares of forests are adversely affected by forest fires, pests, diseases, invasive species, drought and adverse weather events’.

The rate of deforestation between 2015 and 2020 was estimated at 10 million hectares per year. At this figure, it is not hard to imagine how much of biodiversity loss has been incurred globally each year. Biodiversity loss is obviously concerned with possible extinction of species on ground, driven by factors that totally eliminate their natural habitats and their home range. Large scale agriculture and commercial plantation are seen as one of the primary drivers of biodiversity loss globally.

Deforestation, and subsequently desertification, while inducing biodiversity loss that threatens species extinction, is intrinsically related to many ills that impact marginalized communities across the continents. This filter down to the processes of drought and ground water depletion that can impact millions of people, which already is being seen in many of the nations in the Sub-Saharan region, as is true in South and Central Asia, where the concerns on water security becomes a colossal human issue.

The SOFO report comes down hard on agriculture as a primary driver of biodiversity loss. The report states that, ‘large-scale commercial agriculture (primarily cattle ranching and cultivation of soya bean and oil palm) accounted for 40 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010’. Commercial oil palm plantation in rainforest belts as in Indonesia, Malaysia, Peru, Chile, Colombia, etc. have long been disputed as driving large scale deforestation of primary tropical forests.

The FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 states that forests currently cover 30.8 percent of the global land area. The total forest area is 4.06 billion hectares, or approximately 0.5 hectare per person. The global distribution of forests, as per the FAO’s assessment, is unevenly distributed with some countries having extensive coverage of forests while some have relatively small areas under forests.

The Russian Federation leads with 815 million hectares under forests, or 20 percent of the global forests area, while India is down to 72 million hectares only, accounting for only 2 percent of the total global forests area. Brazil comes second with 497 million hectares under forests at 12 percent while Canada comes third with 347 million hectares at 9 percent. Many of the nations in the world have relatively very low area under forests coverage, some instances being Peru (2%), Indonesia (2%), Democratic Republic of the Congo (3%), and Australia (3%).

The United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests (as outlined in its Goal 1) is primarily focused at reversing ‘the loss of forest cover worldwide through sustainable forest management, including protection, restoration, afforestation and reforestation, and increase efforts to prevent forest degradation and contribute to the global effort of addressing climate change’. The target goal is to achieve increase of forest area by 3 percent worldwide by 2030.

There are, however, conflicting views across nations in terms of expansion of forest areas under the protected area category. Other than the obvious ‘objections’ from mining companies whose interests are limited when protected area status is expanded, the more conflicting area concerns the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional forest dwellers whose rights to access and resource use can be limited as by law.

The United Nations under a broad outlook has stressed on the participation of indigenous peoples towards the long term conservation of primary forests. The viewpoint is that indigenous peoples whose sources of food and livelihood are obtained from forests naturally are concerned with the protection and conservation of forests in the best sense. Forests are ‘territories of life’ for the forest dwellers and forest dependent communities, as is true of the indigenous peoples thriving in the rainforests of the Amazon Basin and in Southeast Asia.

It, therefore, becomes necessary to devise strategies that incorporate IPLCs (Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities) in designing long term planning for restoring and conserving vital forest areas that are storehouse of diverse biological life, many of which could be endemic, rare and threatened. IPLCs as custodians of traditional forests can be one of the best low cost and effective mechanism to save forests from all destructive forces.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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