The most important landscapes left are the ones ‘in between’

Opinions from Robert Nasi on ecosystems in the Anthropocene

An agroforestry landscape in West Java, Indonesia, is filled with forest, crops, fisheries and a water plant. Aulia Erlangga, CIFOR
15 May 2019

Robert Nasi will speak at the Global Landscapes Forum Bonn 2019 on 2223 June. Register to attend or tune-in digitally here.

From the announcement of a new U.N. ambition to restore ecosystems to a landmark report declaring the potential extinction of 1 million forms of life on Earth, the first half of 2019 has been a quick series of shining peaks and grim valleys for climate change news.

It’s also a time – and has been for some time – when headlines often speak of climate change in general terms, without site-specific context or solutions attached.

Robert Nasi, in his role as director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), serves as a watchdog. Everything that comes across the desk of the forester – one of the foremost in the world – is put up to critical review and imaginative alteration, which he here shares in a mid-year review.

And as he assesses the peaks and valleys in real terms, it is, he says, the middle ground that matters most for the future.

Robert Nasi on the forested grounds of the Center for International Forestry headquarters in Bogor, Indonesia. Putra Perdana, CIFOR

This year’s Global Forest Watch report said that fewer trees were lost in 2018 than in 2016 and 2017. Do you see this decrease as a small victory or as a by-product of better weather circumstances?

We have seen some 11, 12 million hectares of tropical forest being lost per year for the last 10 to 15 years. There was a peak in 2017, much linked to forest fires. So in a sense, it’s not like there is a drop in 2018 but more like we are back to the average value, which is not a good one.

The problem we have with all these reports is that you never really know exactly what is measured. The University of Maryland data that informed the Global Forest Watch report concerns tree cover, not forest cover. Meanwhile WRI has said they have been able to distinguish primary forest and shown how much of that we have lost. I’ve looked at the various websites and reports; it’s not clear for me exactly where or how this information came about.

The worrying point for me in 2018 is that we see some of the countries that have very little forest left, like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, still ranking very high in their increase in deforestation, for oil palm or cocoa or other agricultural commodities. That’s a bad sign. The increase in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is also significant, but I’m not sure what is behind it. My view is that this is not really an increase, but more an artefact due to better detection [of degradation and deforestation].

A positive point is Indonesia, where there has been a decrease in the deforestation rate for two years now. Part of it is that we have been lucky with the weather, but also policies put in place by the current administration like the moratoriums on oil palm plantations and on peat, plus the work of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), have played a significant role.

There was a recent piece in Nature about how restoration is often done through planting plantations or ways that don’t end up having much net carbon capture. Do you think the definition of restoration is currently too broad and should be narrowed, or do you think if we start attaching criteria to the term, countries will be dissuaded from restoring at all?

It’s a good wake-up call, but I’m buying only very partially what was written in this paper. It makes some very big assumptions that are not necessarily substantiated in terms of what happens with plantations, such as that because you’re cutting trees on a regular basis there is no real carbon storage – it’s not that simple.

A piece of land that has been burned and is now in an idle degraded state, if you plant oil palm on it, it’s still restoration because there is an economic product, and there is more carbon captured. Of course, it’s not as much as the initial forest, but it is totally unrealistic to think that we will be  going to be able to reconstitute natural forests as they were everywhere. Maybe they grew in conditions that are not the same as they are now. In many cases, you cannot go back, so you need to do what’s best in ensuring better environmental services and livelihoods.

For me, it’s not that we need to change the definition of restoration. It’s more that we need to be both transparent and objective in the way that we measure success. If your aim is to restore the forests as they were before, then you’re successful based on how much you achieve that. If your aim is to reestablish ecosystem services while also improving the level of carbon sequestration, then you should be assessing based on that.

Local communities help manage and restore peatlands in Riau, Indonesia. Aris Sanjaya, CIFOR

And the IPBES report on potential biodiversity extinction – did the findings surprise you?

No, unfortunately. It’s good that the IPBES has put everything in one piece, but if you read the Living Planet Index that the WWF and Zoological Society of London are publishing every year, or any Global Biodiversity Outlook study from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the trend has been similar since the Industrial Revolution.

I think it’s good to have this report because it will generate a bit of movement, and people will look at the biodiversity issue and not simply at climate change. I hope both will be looked at together. We cannot dismiss one for the other.

How do you foresee incorporating all of these issues and findings together into the plan for the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration?

It really depends. We should establish goals in terms of achieving the SDGs. And we also need to have goals with place-based agreements – in one area, what we call a restored forest ecosystem is equal to something different in another area.

And the goal should not be only to mitigate climate change. The goal should be to mitigate climate change and to secure environmental stability.

How can this be done?

What matters is the entry point. If you say, ‘I have an amount of money, and this amount of money should be put in the most efficient way to capture carbon,’ then you will have to invest half of it in plantations and conservation in Indonesia and Brazil. But if you say, ‘I have the same amount of money, and I want it to protect as many species as possible, and at the same time store the same amount of carbon that I would have stored if I had invested only in storing carbon,’ then you will have to spread your money in different places – Madagascar, Mesoamerica, Indonesia, Brazil and many places.

So it’s really a matter of looking at how you can achieve multiple goals and then finding the best entry point to do so. In some cases, the best entry point might be intensive silviculture, and in another case, the entry point could be a protected area, or a certain species, or something else. The biggest mistake would be to have a very narrow focus and look at one silver bullet for everywhere.

A juniper tree in the Oromia region of Ethiopia has been protected by locals for centuries. Natasha Elkington, CIFOR

How much of this equation should focus on safeguarding the longevity of trees and making sure there are areas in the world where restored forests are sure to last 50, 100, 200 years?

It’s difficult. My main point would be to protect mature forests as they are now. There should not be any forests that are cut and replaced by oil palm or something else. Secondary forests are where we should focus and say, ‘Okay, what sort of management can we do here that gives us the best return in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation, in terms of ecosystem services, in terms of goods for the population and in terms of stability of the environment?’

Unfortunately, no one cares about what to do with the ecosystems that have been transformed already. Everybody is focusing on saving the last 7 percent of primary forest or restoring the places that are completely degraded. The areas in between are probably the most important but treated with the least interest.

That’s a big challenge, but there are places where this has happened. Puerto Rico was almost completely deforested for sugarcane. Now it’s 80 percent covered in forest. The forests are completely different from the forests before, but what is happening is that the fauna that was adapted to the former forest is now pretty well adapted to the new forest.

If you want to have the most biodiversity and chances of sustainability, you need to have a mosaic of ecosystems. That’s where we are promoting the landscape approach. You need to have areas that are intensively managed to produce the goods and services that people need; you need to have areas that are totally protected; and you need to have this whole mix in between.

How do we draw attention to these ‘in-between’ ecosystems?

That’s what we want to do with the CIFOR-ICRAF merger. The agroforestry systems, these areas that are not primary forests anymore, not agricultural land, but are in between, and no one cares about them… They have huge value and can be used much more efficiently.

The world is completely changed by human intervention, like it or not. It’s not possible to go back to a pristine state. So we’d better make sure that what we have changed is still producing ecosystem services and goods, so it’s not becoming totally degraded or going to waste because it’s not labeled ‘primary.’ We need to protect as much as we can and the remnants of the pristine state, and at the same time manage this new ecosystem that has been created by the Anthropocene in order to ensure that the world, environment and society are not going to collapse.


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