By Ewald Rametsteiner, Deputy Director, Forestry Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Millions of smallholder cocoa farmers in West Africa have a problem. Between them, they produce more than half the world’s cocoa, but their livelihoods – and the world’s chocolate supply – are under threat from climate change. Put simply, their cocoa trees are getting sunburnt, and yields are declining. But these farmers have found a solution: they are turning to nature for help.
With assistance from international agencies, cocoa farmers are putting more trees into their agriculture. By growing indigenous tree species among their cocoa trees, they mimic what happens in natural forests. Shade cast by the fast-growing native trees protects the cocoa crop, helping maintain and even increase bean yields.
At the same time, the native trees generate an extraordinary array of other benefits for farmers and the environment and increase resilience. They can be sustainably harvested for timber, and they provide new habitats for biodiversity, store carbon, and protect soils and water catchments.
Turning to nature for solutions is something we all urgently need to do. Humans have been attempting to conquer the natural world for a long time, and forests especially are under pressure.
In just the last 30 years, we have replaced 420 million hectares of natural forest – more than half the area of Australia – mostly with farmlands and urban settlements. Land degradation affects almost 2 billion hectares, which is about the size of South America.
But the negative consequences of the quest to place ourselves above and exploit nature is becoming starkly obvious. A convergence of environmental emergencies – climate change, biodiversity loss and the deterioration of natural systems – now poses a serious threat to human societies and the planet.
Forests are essential for a functioning planetary system and for solving problems related to climate change, biodiversity, water security and sustainable production and consumption. Yet we have been treating them as expendable.
We need to work with nature rather than fight it.
Next week, leaders and experts will gather for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26), one of the most important meetings in history. They must look to trees for solutions.
Dealing with the climate crisis requires approaches that simultaneously sustainably manage ecosystems, address societal challenges and generate diverse other benefits. Implemented at the necessary scale, such nature-based solutions can still divert us away from the development pathways that are putting us at risk.
Cocoa agroforestry in West Africa is only one of a virtually limitless range of solutions involving trees and forests. The challenge is to scale them up so they can make a difference globally.
FAO is gathering evidence for three forest-based pathways we believe will be crucial for averting the multiheaded crisis we face. The State of the World’s Forests, to be published next year, will present a blueprint for ramping up engagement, empowerment and investment in these three pathways.
The first is to halt deforestation and forest degradation. By doing so, we will cut global greenhouse gas emissions, limit the loss of valuable biodiversity and reduce the risk of future pandemics.
The second is to use forests and trees to restore degraded lands and put more trees on farms. This will boost the resilience of ecosystems as well as productivity and livelihoods – much needed for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Done at a sufficient scale, this pathway will extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and also create an enormous resource for the third pathway – building a more inclusive, resilient and circular economy with forest products and services.
Wood is almost magical in its versatility – it can substitute for polluting products like steel, concrete, plastics and fossil-fuel-based textile fibres. It could underpin a new economic approach focused on reuse, recycling and renewal.
Forestry in its various forms – protection, restoration and enhanced sustainable use – can simultaneously build natural assets, absorb vast quantities of greenhouse gases, conserve biodiversity, protect water catchments and supply the world with materials. It doesn’t hold all the answers, and it has its own challenges, but it will be a big part of the solution if we are to head off disaster.
The good news is that the first steps along the three forest pathways are being taken, led by smallholders, communities and many private companies. COP 26 needs to boost support for these actors and accelerate progress. The more we work with nature rather than against it, the better our chances of navigating towards a greener, more sustainable future.
This article was originally published with IISD.