When thinking of forests, don’t forget the value of trees

Palm swamp forests on peat in the region of Loreto. Photo by Kristell Hergoualc'h/CIFOR.
10 May 2017
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Over the past decade, commitments and support for Forest Landscape Restoration have grown significantly. As part of the Bonn Challenge, for instance, some 40 countries, sub-national jurisdictions, and non-governmental entities have now pledged to restore forest landscapes across 148 million hectares. Although the environmental benefits in terms of ecosystem services, soil restoration, water, biodiversity and climate resilience are evident, the tremendous economic arguments and the value proposition for poor people living in, or nearby, the forests, are not always at the forefront of the efforts to restore landscapes.

In fact, some 1.3 billion people around the world depend on forests for their livelihood—that is 20% of the global population. This includes income from the sale of trees and tree-related products. It also includes the value of fruit, fodder, medicines, and other direct or indirect products that they consume. However, the restoration of forest landscape at a global scale needs a new vision for an integrated forest economy which appreciates and understands forests along their entire value chain. Thus it is crucial to see forest landscape restoration efforts as much more than just protecting forests, but as a force for economic growth and poverty reduction.

Indeed, restoring forest landscapes could bring renewed economic opportunity, improved water supply, and climate resilience. IUCN estimates the annual net benefit of restoring 150 million hectares of land at approximately US$85 billion per year. In addition, such restoration would sequester massive amounts of greenhouse gases and go a long way towards stabilizing climate change at 2 degrees Celsius.

It is in this context that forest landscape restoration is receiving increasing attention due to a huge growth in demand for forest products and bioenergy around the world. A recent study undertaken in six tropical countries confirms the rapidly widening supply gap of harvested wood products and wood-based energy. PROFOR, with the support of its partners and donors, has translated this challenge into coherent regulatory and governance solutions that can support smallholders and small and medium forest enterprises, through land and forest tenure, new technology, adequate finance and market access.

If the ambitious scale for the global and national forest restoration targets is to be achieved, the economic arguments should be back at the center, along with the conservation ones. It is not just forests that matter. In most cases it will help to approach the challenges by looking at tree-based systems. Trees on farms are more widespread than mostly reported, and can provide substantial benefits.

A study in four sub-Saharan countries shows that one third of rural farms report growing trees and, on average, these farms are economically better off than those who don’t. The study also shows evidence that trees on farms can improve the productivity of landscapes. Trees on farms, however, are overlooked both by national agriculture and forest policies as they fall somehow in between these two camps. As a result, PROFOR is now preparing a new guidebook on how agricultural household services can systematically include tree relevant data.

Two other PROFOR studies try to understand the key factors driving the adoption of tree-based systems (TBS) at scale in Malawi and Rwanda, which result in improved soil fertility, higher crop yields, and increased agricultural production by helping control soil erosion, replenishing soil organic matter and nutrients, while diversifying income and building resilience to climate shocks.

In Malawi, tree-based systems have been widely promoted to help increase agricultural production among smallholder farmers who cannot afford to buy chemical fertilizers. Using conservative assumptions and estimates, the total savings from replacing subsidized fertilizer with fodder (Gliricidia) fertilizer is $45.98 per year per household. Assuming that more than 1,5 million households could potentially be reached, and that all of them adopt Gliricidia/maize intercropping systems, the potential total annual savings is estimated at $71 million per year.

In Rwanda, TBS in agricultural lands are widespread. For a country where most poor families live in rural areas, shows how the spread of tree-based systems could help farmers in boosting crop yields and diversifying their incomes. The adoption of TBS for the production of fruits, wood products, milk, soil erosion control, and soil fertility management has already led to higher incomes.

As more evidence starts to show not only the environmental benefits but also the economic ones, it will be important to look at tree-based economic systems in a more holistic way, systematically analyzing the regulatory, financial and technical assistance needs that small holders and small companies would need, not only during the planting process, but along the entire value chain.

These examples are evidence of the great environmental, economic and poverty reduction opportunities that forest landscape restoration can offer. They are also a reminder that when thinking of forests, we must not forget to see the economic value of trees.

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