This year, we celebrate the first International Day of Forests, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in late 2012.
Forests cover one third of the land surface. They provide vital ecosystem goods and services, including food, fodder, water, shelter, nutrient cycling and recreation. They store carbon and provide habitat for a wide range of species.
But the human quest for economic development has led to the conversion of billions of hectares of forests into man-made deserts. By the middle of the 19th century, the French novelist Chateaubriand observed that “forests precede civilizations, deserts follow them.”
Around 80% of deforestation worldwide is caused by agriculture.
With global demand for food projected to increase by 50% before 2030, we will need an additional 120 million hectares of agricultural land to support the required food production. That is a new farm the size of South Africa.
This trend is unsustainable when you consider that by 2030, an area twice the size of South Africa will also become unproductive due to desertification and drought alone. We cannot continue with business as usual. We must change the course. We should not clear forests when we can restore degraded land to meet future food and energy demands.
World leaders at the UN Conference for Sustainable Development (Rio+20) held last year agreed to “strive to achieve a land-degradation neutral world in the context of sustainable development.”
This means land degradation should be avoided and every hectare of degraded land offset by a hectare of restored land within the same landscape and ecosystem. This aspirational goal must become an operational goal with deliverable targets.
The good news is that we can achieve land-degradation neutrality because more than two billion hectares of land worldwide can be rehabilitated through forest and landscape restoration.
We must also look beyond rainforests and embrace holistic approaches that restore entire landscapes. We must also give serious attention to the dry forests, our neglected assets that make up 42 percent of the Earth’s tropical and subtropical forests.
Dry forests hold the key to our global food security. They are the backbone of the dryland ecosystems that make up 44 percent of all cultivated systems and support half of the global livestock.
In contrast to their value, dry forests receive little attention from conservationists, policy makers, business community and the general public. They are not fully considered in in market oriented schemes and global initiatives such as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+).
For small scale farmers in the Zinder region of Niger, trees are investments. In the last 20 years, they have invested in trees on over five million hectares of farmland. Where they had no trees or only a few per hectare, they now have up to 120. These trees have improved soil fertility. They have provided about a million households with fodder, fruit and firewood. Most importantly, the farmers who have preserved trees have coped better with drought than other farmers in the same area.
We need to scale up these success stories and good practices and design new policies and business models to attract investments that enable agroforestry and other sustainable land management practices contribute to building food-energy-water security while sharply reducing poverty and building resilience in the drylands.
Future demands for food, energy and water will be a major challenge for the forestry community. Unless we think beyond traditional forestry, we may win a few battles but lose the war against deforestation and forest degradation.
My call on this first International Day of Forests is this: “Don’t Let Our Future Dry up!”. Let us join efforts and move towards a land-degradation neutral world.