Forest Fest Makes Headway in Protection, Poverty Reduction

by Inter Press Service | Inter Press Service
Monday, 7 February 2011 15:31 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Andrea Lunt UNITED NATIONS, Feb 7 (IPS) - Political leaders have committed to ramping up restoration of the world's forests and tackling poverty in forest communities as part of pledges made at the ninth session Forum on Forests, which wrapped up at the United Nations headquarters in New York last week.Rwanda, in central eastern Africa, led the way with promises to launch a 25-year plan to tackle ecosystem degradation and improve rural livelihoods, a move hailed by environmental groups including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). "If other countries are inspired by Rwanda and follow suit, then what we could be witnessing is the beginning of the largest restoration initiative the world has ever seen," said IUCN's director general Julia Marton-Lefèvre. Rwanda's forests diminished rapidly in the 1990s due to poor management and land use conflict. However, with recent economic growth the government is looking to reverse the trend, according to the nation's minister of land and environment, Stanislas Kamanzi. Other developments included the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the UNFF Secretariat and the German government for an 800,000-dollar project on forest financing for Africa and Least Developed Countries (LDCs). The biennial UNFF, which this year coincided with the launch of the International Year of the Forests 2011, is attended by representatives from all 192 member states of the U.N. However, agreements negotiated through the process are not legally binding. With a theme of "Forests and People", this year's forum resulted in commitments to better coordinate forest conservation with local management schemes and poverty reduction. In wrapping up the two weeks of meetings, a ministerial declaration was released acknowledging "the crucial role of local people, including women, and local and indigenous communities, in achieving sustainable forest management". One of the key goals of NGOs working at the forum this year was to advance the plight of land rights for forest peoples, with new data from IUCN showing forests are worth up to 130 billion dollars a year to the world's poorest communities. Although traditionally priced for their timber, the report shows forests also provide an estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide with food, fuel, medicines, energy, income and employment. "When deciding how to spend budgets, governments usually don't factor in the economic returns to investing in locally-controlled forestry," report author Lucy Emerton said. "They thereby miss a critical opportunity to invest in stimulating economic growth, sustainable development and poverty reduction." While the economic, social and sustainability benefits of locally-controlled forestry are well known, only 47 percent of the legal rights over forests are managed by local communities - and IUCN believes this figure needs to increase. "Lots of people don't really own the forests they use, or they own them in their own heads, customarily, but they don't legally own them," Gill Shepherd, IUCN's thematic adviser on poverty and landscapes, told IPS. "Very often they are counted as squatters or illegal thieves. Now I'm not saying every forest in the world should belong to local indigenous people, but I think a far higher proportion could do so." While the U.N.'s premier forest scheme REDD+, negotiated in Cancún last December, has aimed to place local communities at the centre of forest governance, critics say the safeguards are negated by industry-friendly policies and failure of implementation at a national level. Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous person from the Besao mountain province in the Philippines, told IPS that despite her people being granted legal titles on their forest lands, the rights were largely symbolic. "The possession by indigenous peoples of these titles still does not guarantee their security of tenure over these forests, as licenses for mining and plantations are still given by the state to private business people and politicians," Tauli-Corpuz said. Other environmental groups believe the increasing demand for wood-based bio-energy and the continued conversion of forests to plantations are the greatest threats to forest communities. According to Dr. Rachel Smolker, of BiofuelWatch, urgent action is needed to regulate emerging industries such as the biofuel sector, if REDD+ is to work as intended. Highlighting the gravity of the situation, Smolker said, "Scientific models predict that if the demand for wood-based energy continues to rise unabated, all forests and grasslands will be converted to bio-energy plantations by 2060." However, political leaders at the forefront of REDD+, including Norway's agriculture and food minister Lars Peder Brekk, believe the agreement is on the right track. In an interview at UNFF last week, Brekk told IPS the scheme had a huge responsibility, but it was making progress for both conservation as well as protection of indigenous communities. "What we hoped to do (with REDD+) is to start a process where we take care of the forests and take care of the interests of the people who are using the forests at the same time," he said. "From the Norwegian point of view it has been very important for us to give REDD+ a dimension that allows us to take care of forests in the future, so that we don't break them down, that we don't destroy them." 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