New forest pledges welcomed, but real action needed

GLF Climate looks at the world’s forest commitments and their realities on the ground

A misty forest in Yakushima Island, Japan. Marek Piwnicki, Unsplash
9 November 2021
9 November 2021

By Robert Finlayson

Also read the wrap-ups for day 2 (food) and day 3 (5th Investment Case symposium) of the event.

The UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow, COP26, began with an ambitious pledge from 127 countries to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation” by 2030, known as the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. This would include 90 percent of global tree cover and 85 percent of the world’s primary tropical forests. 

While this is, by far, the largest commitment ever made on deforestation, its good intentions are being scrutinized in light of the lack of delivery on past similar pledges. Back in 2014, 39 countries signed the New York Declaration on Forests and promised to halve their forest loss by 2020. That deadline has passed, but deforestation remains persistent – an example is a general increase in tropical primary forest loss since 2014.

In light of this, and three days after the Glasgow pledge was signed, the Global Landscapes Forum, an organization focused on sustainable land-use and development, hosted a conference focused on forests and the science that underpins their conservation and restoration. Within some 20 sessions, leaders of Indigenous and local communities from landscapes around the world, alongside scientists and political leaders, discussed gaps in knowledge, financial needs and mechanisms to help improve the success of commitments.

“The pledge [to end deforestation by 2030] at COP26 by over 130 countries is very welcome, but we would be happier still if they reach the people on the ground, so we won’t be fighting huge forest fires with tree branches,” said Houria Djoudi, a senior scientist with CIFOR-ICRAF whose family faced the wildfires that swept through Algeria earlier this year. “Many people died in the fires, and many others lost everything. Before, trees were everywhere.”

“The agreement to stop deforestation by 2030 is the major achievement so far of COP26,” echoed Wil de Jong, emeritus professor with Kyoto University and adjunct professor with Renmin University. “[There are already] these ambitious goals of the Bonn Challenge of restoring 350 million hectares by 2030.” Noting that tree-planting rates in some crucial areas have been declining, he urged the audience to “be a bit more cautious in our thinking about what forests can or cannot do in solving the global climate crisis.”

The Bezos Earth Fund also announced at the COP a pledge of USD 2 billion for restoration and food systems, joining with the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which seeks to bring 100 million hectares of degraded landscape under restoration, to do so.

A tree nursery in Kenya. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
A tree nursery in Kenya. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

Global aspirations, local implications

Susan Chomba, director of Vital Landscapes for Africa with the World Resources Institute, stressed the need to use these commitments to enhance the livelihoods of local people, who are often the ones to plant the trees and implement the actions needed to reach goals, yet often still struggle to meet basic needs. In Africa, 90 percent of wood taken from forests is used for fuel. “One of the key things I’m concerned about with these billions of dollars for restoration in Africa is how much will go to local communities to compensate them for restoration?” questioned Chomba.

“Finance we need, definitely,” said Mwambu Wanendeya, CEO and founder of Carico, which is restoring and improving coffee farms in Uganda. “We have the people. We have the skills, and the communities are keen. What stops us is the financing.”

While recent years have seen an uptick in science and research conducted on forests and trees, increased migration from rural to urban areas for job and livelihood opportunities is resulting in the loss of traditional and local knowledge of specific forest areas, impacting proper conservation and restoration.

“When I was young, I learned from elders about our traditions, and I learned from the forest, but to get an education I had to move to the city,” said Sumarni Laman, coordinator of Youth Act Indonesia and a member of the Indigenous Dayak people of Kalimantan, Indonesia. “We lost our connections to our family and the community, which is the start of the problem, because Indigenous knowledge is passed down to the younger generation. There’s now a gap between the older and younger generations. It’s crucial we make a bridge to reduce this gap. We need to connect traditional knowledge to modern scientific knowledge.”

“We have high expectations from COP26, but the expectations are for outcomes and actions,” said James Marape, prime minister of Papua New Guinea, which holds 13 percent of global tropical rainforests. At the event, the country’s national government signed an agreement with Resilient Landscapes, an entity of CIFOR-ICRAF that works closely with the private sector, for a EUR 195 million nature-based solutions development project. The project focuses on the Managalas Plateau, a biodiversity hotspot that has the potential to be an integrated landscape delivering both quality tree-based commodities and a broad range of ecosystems services and products. 

“We must move beyond words and take action. We have seen the New York Declaration on Forests and other commitments, but these are not legally binding and carry no means of implementation,” said Marape.


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