Feature Story

Forests for life

May 1, 2016

Forests such as those in the Congo Basin and elsewhere contain an estimated 80 percent of the above-ground and 40 percent of below-ground terrestrial carbon, and currently hold more carbon than earth’s atmosphere. The role of forests as important carbon reservoirs has gained remarkable attention in the global climate change discussion over the past several years.

Ask just about anyone who has thought about global climate change to name where most greenhouse gases come from and like as not they will respond, correctly, with energy production and industry.

Together, those obvious culprits account for nearly half of the global total of greenhouse gases. Ask for the next biggest source, however, and most people will likely be stumped. The answer is deforestation. More than all the cars, trucks, buses, trains, and boats on Earth, more than all the industrial-scale agribusiness, more than all the construction, the loss of forests produces almost one-fifth of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

Forests such as those in the Congo Basin and elsewhere contain an estimated 80 percent of the above-ground and 40 percent of below-ground terrestrial carbon, and currently hold more carbon than earth’s atmosphere. The role of forests as important carbon reservoirs has gained remarkable attention in the global climate change discussion over the past several years. Today the consensus is that meeting emission reduction targets will be impossible without including forestry.

Yet, as the work in the Mbé River demonstrates, the importance of forests extends far beyond their role in sequestering carbon and regulating the global climate. Biodiversity, economic progress, and human well being also depend on healthy forests. Forests regulate water cycles and provide habitats for biodiversity while hosting a wide variety of genetic resources. More than two billion people use wood for cooking, heating, and food preservation. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that the forest industry contributed approximately US$468 billion to global GDP in 2006.

Forests also provide an essential source of cash, especially during poor harvests. In many countries, non-timber forest products — such as fruits, nuts, honey, mushrooms, bushmeat, plant products, medicine, aromatic products, and exudates such as lacquer — play important roles in local economies and livelihoods, and are important exports. According to the FAO, the value of these products extracted from forests worldwide amounted to at least US$18.5 billion in 2005.

The challenge for the GEF and its partners is to find new ways to deliver multiple benefits — biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and human well-being — and to achieve broader and more meaningful impact on these vital ecosystems. Those benefits can overlap, but knowing where that happens and under what conditions requires taking a broad view. As the financial mechanism for not only the global climate convention but the biodiversity and desertification conventions as well, the GEF is uniquely positioned to bring the often disjointed policies and funding sources together.

The need for innovative and broad-scale thinking is clear. Each year, rapidly growing human populations press deeper and deeper into forest frontiers in search of land for farming and grazing. The problem is particularly severe in the tropics, which account for approximately 90 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. The process feeds a downward spiral. As forests become fragmented, the smaller and smaller parcels become degraded and ultimately disappear, converted into pasture or farmland.

One way to approach the problem is the concept of Sustainable Forest Management, or SFM. According to the United Nations Forum on Forests, SFM is a dynamic concept that seeks to maintain and enhance the economic, social, and environmental values of forests, for the benefit of both present and future generations. SFM is of particular interest in densely populated areas and places where many people heavily depend on forests for their income, because it allows the use of a wide range of forest products while addressing the pressure on forest resources.

Many developing countries lack the capacity to efficiently implement SFM on a larger scale in part because deforestation has, until recently, received little attention compared to the other causes of climate change. That began to change in 2005 when the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change acknowledged that reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, or REDD, plays a vital role in a comprehensive strategy to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. SFM, including forest conservation, is a relatively inexpensive and effective tool for mitigating climate change.

Since the idea of REDD was first introduced it has been broadened to include conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks, and is now called REDD Plus, most often spelled as REDD+. The possibility of using carbon markets to direct significant financial resources from developed countries to developing countries for forest conservation — a fundamental component of REDD+ — has generated widespread interest and dramatically raised the profile of the role of forests not only in regulating the global climate but also as an important part of the move towards a green economy.

In recognition of these varied services, in 2007 the GEF began to broaden its SFM efforts. The new approach was based in part on the understanding that SFM applies at a variety of scales, from local to regional to global, and that working across all these scales will be vital to integrating forests into economic decisions.

Add up all the goods and services that forests provide and their value alive vastly outweighs their value cut into logs, crushed into pulp, or burned into charcoal. Addressing the importance of metrics in environmental endeavors, economists can calculate with reasonable accuracy the value of some of the benefits from forests, particularly in regulating climate, sustaining freshwater and coastal fisheries, preventing erosion, and maintaining water supplies. Forests also have important intangible benefits — social, cultural, aesthetic, even religious — that have no price in the market but are hugely important locally and globally. What is clear is that forests deliver a range of services, and it is the package of ecosystem services, not just tons of carbon, that need to be considered.

Unfortunately, existing economic systems cannot adequately value forests. Markets fail because they usually do not account for what economists call externalities: the damage to watersheds that deforestation can cause, the diminished crop yields due to erosion, the decline in health because of the lack of clean water, and so on. The people who live near and depend on the forests bear those costs. Without a green economy that values ecosystem services, this burden will continue to grow and sustainable forest use will remain a challenge rather than an achievement.

A GEF-funded project in Malawi illustrates all of these trends, as well as some possible solutions. The project reveals at a fine scale how forests, forest conservation, and rural development can be part of a low-carbon future. The Soche Mountain Forest Reserve sits at the edge of the city of Blantyre, in southern Malawi. Due to the increasing demand from the city for forest products, the reserve has lately seen accelerated degradation. Biomass-based enterprises, such as fuel wood and timber extraction, beer brewing, and brick making, have proliferated in the area, leading to deforestation. People in search of agricultural land have cleared trees from the slopes of the Soche Mountain, but the communities cultivating the slopes lack both technical and material support to integrate sound conservation and agronomic practices into their farming systems.

The GEF Small Grants Programme in Malawi supports the Soche Mountain Land Care Extension Project, a multipronged community effort to restore the ecosystem of the Soche Mountain Forest Reserve after years of degradation and neglect. The project helps people near the mountain develop community-based action plans. Activities include re-establishing forest cover on Soche Mountain, and applying good agricultural practices on farmland just below the mountain, such as tree planting, promoting natural regeneration of endemic vegetation, soil and water conservation practices, and capacity building.

Four communities joined together to form the Friends of Soche Mountain and planted a total of 46,000 trees. More than a third of the deforested area has been rehabilitated. Communities have established communal woodlots and now practice sustainable land management techniques in their own fields and homesteads. By working with community leaders the project persuaded farmers to stop cultivating the mountain slopes.

The project has also demonstrated that community conservation can bring additional benefits. One chapter of Friends of Soche Mountain supported an effort to provide potable water from a source on the mountain for use by communities. As a result, over 250 households now have access to safe drinking water, after chlorination and basic treatment for sedimentation.

As Maynard Nyirenda, Director of the NGO working on Soche Mountain, recalls, “We came to support community conservation efforts on Soche Mountain without plans to address the water problem. However, through a lengthy dialogue process, community leaders insisted that if we wanted to succeed we must provide a solution to the community’s greatest need — safe drinking water and that everything would then be under control — they were right!”

Building the capacity of both government authorities and local communities to participate in sustainable forest management and REDD+ projects is an important element in developing acceptable solutions. Another GEF-funded project aims to improve the African countries’ knowledge of and capacity for REDD+ issues, and to help them to articulate this new concept within the broader agenda of sustainable forest management. The project is building capacities for measurement and monitoring of carbon stocks through various types of technical assistance.

An important element of this project was a 10-day SouthSouth exchange (direct collaboration between developing countries) on community forestry and REDD+ which took place in Brazil with participants from six African countries. The exchange helped countries to understand the role that community forestry can play in their national REDD+ strategies. The activity brought together participants from the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Madagascar and the Republic of Congo to exchange experiences on community forestry and REDD+ with various Brazilian counterparts, including federal and state governments, the private sector, civil society, and indigenous people’s organizations.

A key feature is of this exchange is the training of African personnel on lower cost forest monitoring techniques perfected by Brazil’s space institute, INPE. The idea is to provide a combination of open-source data, tools, and algorithms that can be adjusted to specific country needs for Geographical Information Systems (GIS), image processing, database management, and data access. At the UN Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa, in December 2011, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) unveiled a new forest monitoring system developed through the exchanges with INPE.

Inspired by the Brazilian forest monitoring system called TerraAmazon, the new TerraCongo system will allow the DRC to monitor the performance of REDD+-plus demonstration activities and initiatives, deforestation in protected areas, and logging concessions, as well as national policies and measures in the forestry sector. The system is integrating the information coming from the National REDD+-plus Registry into a single visualization interface, thus promoting transparency and coordination between the various initiatives underway on the ground.

Efforts in Malawi, the DRC, and the Congo Basin more broadly are just a few examples of GEF innovation in financing projects and programs that seek to generate multiple benefits from forests. This experience will help ensure that strategies such as REDD+-plus address ecosystem services, biodiversity, and local people as well as the carbon that forests contain. The increasing awareness of forests and their potential to mitigate climate change provides a historic opportunity to counteract environmental degradation while directly promoting sustainable development. The potential to address both climate change and rural development in a variety of contexts has been central to the GEF’s efforts over the past two decades and will be increasingly important for the next two as well.