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Global Well-Being: Rooted in the World's Forests

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post Environmental Leadership supplement on April 20, 2011, and is reposted with permission.

This year, 2011, has been declared the International Year of Forests, and while a few bright spots exist, forests today face a host of challenges. Mounting pressures from agricultural expansion, rapid economic development, and growing demand for products are leading to deforestation and degradation of forests at alarming rates. The expanding global population— expected to reach 9 billion people by mid-century—is increasing demand for food, encroaching on forests and the value they hold.

Globally an estimated 1.5 billion hectares have already been lost to deforestation. Countries like Brazil and Indonesia face critical situations as millions of acres of rainforest are felled or burned each year to make room for cattle ranches, soybean and oil palm plantations, and the production of pulp and paper. Closer to home, the United States Forest Service predicts that more than 30 million acres of forests in the southern U.S. could be lost to suburban sprawl in the coming generation.

Forests, which cover one-third of the world’s land, are a precious natural resource. They offer food, shelter and income for around a billion of the world’s poorest people. More than half of land-based animal and plant species live in forests. And trees absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and protect vital freshwater sources.

The challenges are clear, but solutions have been harder to find. Certainly there is no single magic bullet, but evidence is growing from remote corners of the world— Colombia, Brazil, Niger, Nepal, Indonesia, and beyond— that offer reasons for hope and hold the promise for further success.

In Niger, West Africa, tree cover has increased dramatically across a vast swath of the southern landscape. This turnaround came after political leaders and forestry officials began to recognize the property rights of local farmers to manage trees on their land. Now, forests are being restored, erosion is being reduced, water tables are rising, soil is becoming more fertile, and crop yields are increasing.

In Latin America, some governments, including those in Colombia and Brazil, have been handing back vast forest reserves to the descendants of their original owners, including indigenous Amerindians and other local communities. Evidence is emerging that forest cover is preserved when coupled with ancestral land rights.

After decades of deforestation, Nepal has also begun to reverse course, especially in areas where local “community forests” have been established. Community forests account for approximately 20 percent of forested land in Nepal, where decision- making is accomplished locally by empowered villagers and supported by the national government. Over 12,000 Community Forest User Groups have engaged local communities in the business of protecting, rejuvenating and managing forested landscapes to produce fodder, wood and other products to use and sell.

Increased rights and recognition of land tenure can be a win-win, benefitting both people and forests.

Local control and decisionmaking is the common thread connecting these stories. Nearly a decade ago, the authors Andy White and Alejandra Martin proposed that the recognition of indigenous rights and community ownership offer “an historic opportunity for countries to dramatically improve the livelihoods of millions of forest inhabitants.” While there is still a long way to go to fulfill this vision, growing evidence suggests that increased rights and recognition of land tenure can indeed be a win-win, benefitting both people and the forests on which they depend.

Creative thinking around governance is also playing a hand in one of the best and most innovative opportunities to restore forests. In West Kalimantan, Indonesia, the World Resources Institute is working with local partners to encourage the restoration and reuse of degraded lands, including for palm oil production. By some estimates, more than half of oil palm expansion in Indonesia since 1990 occurred at the expense of forests. This project, which has growing support from the Indonesian government, would help divert some planned oil palm plantations away from natural rainforests and toward degraded lands instead.

Recent analysis by WRI and its partners shows that about three billion acres worldwide—an area larger than Brazil—of previously forested land have become deforested or degraded over the last decade provide opportunities for restoration. While some of these areas could be restored as healthy forests, other areas could be converted to food production. This, in turn, can bring a multitude of benefits, such as creating jobs, easing pressure to clear more forests, reducing carbon emissions, and protecting biodiversity.

While none of the actions alone is enough, together they offer strategies that would help restore and protect forests for future generations. Governments, international development agencies, and nongovernmental organizations—together with local communities—must now build on these approaches and expand the number of success stories in the years to come.

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