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Sheltering forests for people

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International Day for Biological Diversity is celebrated worldwide on May 22 to further our understanding of biodiversity issues. This year, the International Day for Biological Diversity highlights ‘Forest Biodiversity’ to complement the International Year of Forests 2011, declared by the UN General Assembly. The International Year of Forests gives us an opportunity to renew our awareness of the state of the world’s forests, and to realize their role in greening the environment, sustaining life, and providing for people’s needs and wellbeing.

Commemorating the International Year of Forests 2011, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) called on people to share their thoughts on why forests are important and why one should care for forests. A model tree was erected, and hundreds of paper leaf messages adorned the tree.

Among several thoughtful messages, one caught my eye. It read: “If we grow forests, where will people live?” A valid question! But today, the challenge is to answer the question of how we can survive if there are no forests.

According to the United Nations, forests cover nearly one-third of the world’s land area; four-fifths of terrestrial biodiversity is found in forests; they are home to 300 million people worldwide, and about 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihood. The ‘State of the World’s Forests’ by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) designates forests as pathways to sustainable development. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recognizes forests as one of Earth’s living treasures.

If forests are lost, food, fodder, fuel wood, timber, medicines and wild edibles will run low, and particularly the forest-dependent people will be hardest hit. But this is not all: The array of services forests provide go beyond materials for our day-to-day survival. The diversity of ecosystems, and of animals, birds, trees, mosses, butterflies, and others – and the associated genetic diversity – will be much reduced if we lose the forests. The range of ecological interactions and evolutionary processes will also collapse. Furthermore, the network of roots that stabilizes the soil and makes way for precious groundwater collection will disappear. The natural machinery that balances atmospheric gases and moisture will weaken.

Forests are the prime reservoir of carbon, but they are also the greatest source of carbon emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated that emissions resulting from deforestation account for close to one-fifth of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. When forests are cut or burned, the carbon stored in them is emitted into the atmosphere as CO2, contributing to climate change.

Many indigenous communities still live in forests with their culture and traditions closely bound to forest resources. If we lose forests, we lose them, their abode, and their rich traditions, as well as their wisdom in relation to sustaining the forests.

The International Year of Forests intends to highlight the concerns over the rapid loss of forests and their services. A point to consider is that damage to forests in one part of the world has widespread consequences far away, because forests are connected. Together they shape the world’s climate and influence biodiversity and its allied goods and services.

The major threat to forests is deforestation. People cut down trees to make charcoal, for timber, to create space for pastures and cash crops, and to extract minerals. Superimposed on these exploitative and consumptive threats is human induced climate change.

The climate change policy of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) and bringing out the role of conservation and sustainable forest management (REDD plus) is the latest undertaking aiming to help combat the threats to forests. The idea is to integrate climate change mitigation measures with sustainable forest conservation and management.

The CBD’s Programme of Work on Forests complements the UNFCCC climate policy by urging nations to create enabling mechanisms to conserve the biodiversity of all forests types so as to sustain the services of forest ecosystems for the benefit of people, and to increase the carbon pool.

In Nepal, until 2009, close to 40 percent of the land was under forests. The forestry sector is estimated to contribute 15 percent of national GDP. The Government has made a significant policy shift to support forest management in the country. Community forestry in Nepal is a success story. According to the Fourth National Report to the CBD, in 2008, 1.23 million hectares of forests had been handed over to 14,431 forest user groups, benefitting 40 percent of Nepal’s households.

Community forestry reflects accountability on the part of the people for the sensible management of the resources they value, and inventive management on the part of the government in involving people in promoting conservation by allowing the sustainable use of forest resources.

Forest Regulations are in place for Nepal to protect forest species of commercial value; the Forest Certification Mechanism ensures that forest-related products are sustainably derived and effectively marketed. The Forest Act contains provisions to ensure that all aspects of forests are continually sustained. The National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan and Implementation Plan emphasize maintaining forest biodiversity and connectivity across forest landscapes, reducing deforestation, and restoring degraded forests.

With regards to linking national forest management with global climate change policy, the process is gradual but progressive. At the national level, under the REDD Strategy, community capacity is being built to derive a baseline measure of the carbon pool within their forests. At the broader level, discussions on how REDD plus activities can contribute to sustainable development and the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the extent of REDD plus benefits to the poor and marginalized groups, are underway.

On the occasion of International Day for Biological Diversity, as we spread the message that ‘Forests are for People’, let us acknowledge these efforts by the Government of Nepal to manage forest biodiversity in the country and support the translation of these policies into actions that are meaningful and just.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut