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International Year Of Forests 2011

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests to raise public awareness of the challenges facing many of the world’s forests and the people who depend on them, specifically, sustainable management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests.

Great success stories and valuable lessons on how to promote sustainable forest management already exist. The Year provides a means of bringing those voices together and building momentum towards greater public participation in forest activities around the world.

Q&A with CIFOR Director General Frances Seymour about International Year of Forests

What will the launch of the International Year of Forests do?

The launch of International Year of Forests will help raise awareness among policymakers and the general public as to the importance of forests and the major threats they face. It provides an opportunity to share success stories about what approaches are showing results, and to highlight potential opportunities to reverse the current trend of deforestation and forest degradation. The agreement on a REDD+ mechanism that was reached at the recent U.N. climate talks in Mexico in December 2010 provides one such opportunity to mobilise political will and financial means to help governments take serious measures to protect tropical forests.

Why are forests important?

We have long known that forest resources are essential to the daily lives of about a billion people worldwide. Households located near forests in many tropical countries derive about a quarter of their income from forest products. Trees provide timber for construction of houses and boats, and fuel wood and charcoal for cooking and heating homes. Forests also provide a wide variety of non-timber forest products, such as medicinal plants, and honey, gums and resins, wild fruits and nuts, rattan and mushrooms. In rural parts of the Congo Basin, many communities depend on wild meat for up to 80 percent of the fats and proteins in their diets.  Deforestation, therefore, is a major threat to these people’s livelihoods.  

Tropical forests harbor much of the world’s biological diversity, including wild relatives of important food crops. Maintaining that reservoir of diverse genetic material will be important as a source of resilience in the face of climate change and the need for species to adapt to changing conditions.

It is only in more recent years that society has begun to appreciate the full range of environmental services that forests provide, because in most cases, they are not valued by markets, and remain uncounted in economic statistics. These include helping to support agriculture - for example through the pollination services of forest-dwelling bees and hydrological regulation, such as moderating droughts and floods and providing water for agriculture. Most recently, people have started to realize the significance of the ecosystem service provided by forests of sequestering carbon, which turns out to be a critical component of any solution to climate change.  A significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from deforestation and forest degradation, and we cannot meet global targets of keeping global warming at less than two degrees centigrade without reducing the rate of deforestation.

What is CIFOR doing special during the International Year of Forests?

Over the last few years we at CIFOR have been increasing our investment _ such as additional staff capacity, hardware, software, and bandwidth to improve our communications _  into how we can better mobilise our research results to inform forest policymaking, as well as to empower practitioners at the frontline of managing forests to better reduce the underlying causes of deforestation and degradation. So International Year of Forests provides a really great opportunity for us to build on that investment and up our game in the various outreach vehicles that we have been building, such as a new website, new types of social media, more conferences and workshops.

We are working with partner organisations, particularly those in the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF --which includes 14 major international organisations with a forest-related mandate), to take advantage of the opportunity to raise awareness during the year. CIFOR will be hosting a series of events to bring forest management challenges to the table from the perspective of a research organisation. This series of conferences and workshops will culminate in Forest Day 5 —co-hosted by the CPF—in conjunction with the next U.N. climate talks in Durban in December, 2011.

What is the role of the international community during this International Year of Forests?

A number of countries that are home to significant tropical forests —including Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico— have stepped forward to make various commitments to reduce deforestation and are in the process of developing national plans and policies to achieve this. For example, Indonesia has convened a Presidential task force to develop and implement a national REDD+ strategy.  In light of the usually fraught political economy of the forestry sector in many countries, such initiatives entail significant political and financial risks for the governments that are undertaking them. The launch of International Year of Forests provides a platform for the international community step up to support their commitments, and reinforce the message that these governments have made the right choice.

Is this a good time to be working on forests?

The politics of forests, both at the national level and globally, are really coming to a watershed moment this year and the confluence of having an International Year of Forests in the same year that these issues are already really hot provides an extraordinary opportunity to make a fundamental change to the way forests are managed.

I have been following with these issues for more than 30 years and there was a peak of international interest in tropical forestry issues about 20 years ago, which culminated in the Earth Summit in Rio. At that time there was a lot of interest in tropical biodiversity and cultural diversity of indigenous rainforest dwellers. But a few years after the Earth Summit, the world’s attention started to wane and moved on. To a certain degree this was due to frustration that the programs that we tried did not work, but also forests were eclipsed by newer issues. Even as recently as five years ago, forestry was not getting a much attention and certainly was not getting a fair share of funding in the international development aid budgets. Forestry departments at universities were closing, ministries of forestry were being collapsed into broader departments of agriculture. It was a general erosion of forests on both the national and global policy agenda.

But suddenly in the last five years, there has been incredible political attention on forests, mainly due to an appreciation of the critical role that they play in climate change mitigation, as well as adaptation to climate change. We have heads of states talking about forests, we have the President of Indonesia flying to Oslo to sign a bilateral agreement on forest cooperation, we had the President of Mexico give an impassioned speech on the underlying drivers of deforestation at Forest Day in Cancun. We have significant financial resources being committed from government budgets, through multilateral organisations and through the philanthropic sector. Private sector organisations are also investing in forests.

It doesn’t get better than this. This is a perfect storm of political attention, finance and political will. And if we can use it, for the first time in my lifetime, it really is an opportunity to make a sea change in how forests are managed around the world. We have to grasp this opportunity and make the most of it.