CIFOR launches regional program in South Asia

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) last week launched an ambitious new research program in South Asia to bolster study of the forests of South Asia, a region facing increasing pressures from climate change, poverty and depletion of natural resources.

Photo by Neil Palmer – CIAT

CIFOR’s Director General, Dr. Peter Holmgren, and Research Director for Forests and Environment, Dr. Louis Verchot, announced CIFOR’s return to India at the Business for the Environment Global Summit in New Delhi, India, 15-16 April 2013.

CIFOR has worked sporadically in India in the past 15 years, but its new focus on the country and wider region seems more appropriate than ever: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), some 275 million people in India are directly dependent on forest resources, 100 million of whom live on public forest land. The number of forest-dependent communities in Nepal and Sri Lanka is as high as 22 million people. And as a whole, South Asia holds more than 500 million people living below the poverty linethe largest concentration of poverty in the world.

These figures illustrate the significance of forests for the livelihoods and rural incomes of these communities, pointing toward the need to combine livelihood, biophysical and governance research to effect positive and sustainable outcomes for such communities. Through a landscape approach in South Asia looking specifically at the Western Ghats mountain range along the west coast of India and the Himalayas, Louis Verchot, CIFOR lead scientist for the program, believes this is possible.

“The sentinel landscape is a new research approach built upon the integration of long-term ecological research with long-term socio-economic research. This will allow us to understand the types of changes that are happening in particular landscapes, identify cause-and-effect relationships and better understand how to design effective policies and implement best practices on the ground.”

“At the local scale, we want to see how forest resources and ecosystem services affect and facilitate sustainable economic development and social wellbeing, and in turn how economic development affects or impacts the forest ecosystem and its services to society.”

Opportunity for impact: Western Ghats and the Himalayas

There is an enormous opportunity for impact in the region. A biodiversity ‘hotspot,’ the Western Ghats not only supplies water to approximately 245 million people in India through its river systems, but its forests also impact the region’s climate and hydrological cycles — changes in which have created socio-economic stress for communities trying to produce from the landscape.

Similarly, the Himalayas, which stretch across eight countries in Asia, host river systems that provide drinking water, irrigation and hydroelectric power for more than 1.5 billion people, with numerous areas of research to be explored, looking particularly at upstream and downstream relationships. As Verchot explains, “What is happening in places downstream is very important to the Himalayas. There is a strong correlation between air pollution impacts on forests and industrialization occurring in the plains because of the wind patterns in the region — what happens in the plains affects the forests, and vice versa.”

The variation in forest cover across the Himalayan region would also provide important lessons for how varied forest cover affects ecosystem services for people living downstream in places such as Bhutan, where the forest is still relatively intact, and Nepal, which has a more mosaic forest setting.

Ideal India

India offers an ideal entry point for the new regional program, offering a wealth of expertise among its scientists and an abundance of institutions already working on sustainable forestry management for development. India has also committed to several national missions in line with CIFOR’s work.

Its National Mission for a ‘Green India’ aims to improve the forest cover quality of 5 million hectares of forests, grasslands and wetlands and the afforestation of another 5 million hectares of land. Its National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Changeaims to gain a better understanding of climate science, impacts and challenges, and also encourages private-sector initiatives to develop adaptation and mitigation technologies through venture capital funds.

With respect to governance, there are lessons to be learned from India’s model of joint forest management by government and local communities, a transfer of power to communities reflected in the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which returns and protects the rights of forest peoples to land and other resources.

These endeavors will provide lessons for the South Asia region and beyond, offering ample opportunity for south-south exchange and opening the possibility of affecting the livelihoods and resilience of communities on a global scale.


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