Feed the world: New global report highlights forests’ role

Sixty leading scientists confirm the importance of forests for global food security.

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BOGOR, Indonesia – Forests and trees must be considered essential in global food security and dietary diversity, according to a major new report.

Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition: A Global Assessment Report was released at the UN Forum on Forests in New York.

Sixty of the world’s leading forestry scientists contributed to the report  – several of them from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)  – which was coordinated by the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) .

The report looks at the value of forests which provide food for nearly one in six – almost one billion – people around the globe.

“Despite impressive productivity increases” the report states, “there is growing evidence that conventional agricultural strategies will fall short of eliminating global hunger and malnutrition. (This report) provides comprehensive scientific evidence on how forests, trees, and landscapes can be – and must be – an integral part of the solution to this global problem.”

The authors write that effective management of landscapes and improved governance of forest landscapes is essential for the delivery of ecosystem services for crop production, to provide better and more nutritionally-balanced diets, and to create greater control over food inputs, especially during lean seasons, periods of vulnerability or for marginalized people.

Senior CIFOR scientist, Terry Sunderland was the lead author of one the report’s chapters.

This interview was done at CIFOR’s headquarters in Bogor, Indonesia, where Sunderland is based.

If we can start generally – the report outlines that forests and trees are vital to ending hunger. Where does policy and governance come into this, especially when so many forest dwelling people live remotely?

That’s a really tough question. Unfortunately, current laws and policies in most developing countries are designed to avoid smallholder development.

Shifting cultivation has been outlawed in countries like Laos, for example, and there are legal statutes that are trying to stop farmers practice shifting cultivation, based on what, I am guessing, is the perceived impact of deforestation.

But in fact many of those forests are the result of shifting cultivation. The fallow periods have been extended, and the mosaic of shifting cultivation, forest and other tree based systems is the result of intensive management and managing forests for food, which is incredibly complex.

That’s why I think that many governments see the superficial act of clearing a few trees to grow a bit of rice or corn as extremely destructive but the scale of it is nowhere near as destructive as for example the expansion of oil palm or rubber or any other monoculture crop.

In your chapter, which is specifically on landscapes management, you start by saying “views on landscape management often deeply entrenched”. How so?

Because the sectors of food production, forestry, and even urban land use – which is part of the landscape – they all tend to be managed from a silo mentality. You ring fence what you do and you don’t to talk to anyone else working in the landscape. It’s a classic example of, “I’m a forester and I don’t talk to agriculturists because I don’t need to” or “I’m an agriculturist and I grow my crops and the forestry is over there on the hills and how relevant is that to me?”

Those silos have traditionally been so entrenched that it’s been impossible to have an integrated landscape approach because it’s been very difficult for people to see the other side.

But clearly, it’s starting to break down. Institutionally, we are seeing the combination of agriculture, forestry, and environment ministries coming together. Traditionally they have been segregated, but they are coming together in many developing countries.

But also on the ground. Most conservation agencies understand that they cannot work solely in a protected area ignoring the wider landscape in which they work.

Likewise development organizations, or oil palm developers or anybody else working in a particular landscape realize they cannot work in a perceived vacuum of their particular focus.

And people are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of talking to other stakeholders, because what happens on those forested hills has an impact on the agriculture. What happens in the agriculture fields has an impact on the water quality of the village downstream.

So all these things are interrelated and they interact in a way that we haven’t really embraced before. But it is starting to change, and it’s starting to change in a big way.

If all these people talk to each other, it’s still not all of a sudden going to be sorted. We’re talking about an enormous amount of negotiation, aren’t we? How do you do that?

The first thing is you have to get people talking and you need a facilitation process in order for that to happen.

And the second thing is that really, you can never get total agreement.

I’ll give you an example.

We worked on a landscape in south east Cameroon and we used a serious of variables to look at how the landscape was doing.

And one of the variables that we looked at was the increased number of elephants. And you look at that and go, great! This is a great metric! This is very powerful. Over ten years we saw the increase in the population of elephants doubled. Great for conservation! Great for forestry. But terrible for local farmers because of increased crop raiding.

So one person’s activity in a landscape that’s positive is likely to be negative for somebody else.

So it’s essential to understand what the tradeoffs are. It’s important to understand who loses, who benefits, and how you bring those folks together to compromise a little. Ok I’ll lose a little here and I’ll win a little there but we both understand that it’s for the greater good. I still have my forest and my elephants and you still have your crops.

That sort of facilitation process is absolutely fundamental to the landscape approach. Understanding how different people view the landscape in entirely different ways. And that’s complex and challenging.

You say it’s complex and challenging. Is it also impossible?

No, not at all. A good example is in Cameroon they formalized the landscape approach. What they’ve done is taken individual landscapes that are managed as legal entities. There are seven now in Cameroon and these landscapes are not protected areas solely or forest management units for harvesting timber, they’re not community hunting concessions….they are all of those combined into a single geographic unit.

Those geographic units are managed by one management authority and they have one conservator. The conservator has management roles and responsibilities that have to combine all of those often competing interests to manage that landscape in its entirety for multiple benefits.

So, benefits for the timber concessionaire, benefits for conservation, benefits the local community so they have land for their own timber extraction and agriculture, and it is actually working on the ground.

It’s not perfect as you can imagine you have so many competing interests but also the power plays that go on, because money is a very important lever in terms of negotiation. But at least there is an attempt to formalize it and to make it work.

While working for the Wildlife Conservation Society some years ago I worked with the Cameroon government to formalize this arrangement and believe me it as not easy to get people in the same room who have traditionally been completely antagonistic towards each other – a logging company and a conservation NGO but you have to do it. It has to happen.

A lot of traction was made by just belligerently getting people in the same room time and time again. They’re not going to agree on the first meeting or the fourth…but in the 27th meeting, maybe you begin to understand each other and what each other wants. It takes perseverance and investment of time and resources but mainly commitment from everyone concerned to achieving a single vision and compromising on their own objectives and perceived achievements.

From the report:

  • Land-sparing: For the purposes of this report, defined as “The promotion of agricultural techniques that encourage the highest possible yields in a given area (even if it involves reduced in-farm biodiversity) with the goal of meeting agricultural needs in the minimum possible area, so as to reduce the pressure over wild areas.
  • Land-sharing: For the purposes of this report, defined as “The promotion of agricultural techniques, mainly agroforestry, that are ‘friendly’ to wild species, aimed at fostering the co-existence of managed (crops or livestock) and wild species in the same area.

The report discusses land sparing and land sharing. Is one better than the other? Are these culturally and regionally different practices or can they be adopted globally?

The whole debate has become a bit of a red herring in some respects.

Conceptually there are important things to think about how you integrate agriculture, forest and other land uses. Is the way you protect your land to grow more crops on smaller areas, because you have the technology to do so and the yields are greater? Or is it better to take the much more mosaic approach to land sharing which is supposedly more wildlife and biodiversity friendly.

The empirical data to support those two approaches really isn’t there. I know there has been a lot of work by individual scientists on birds in Ghana for example, where they do better in certain agricultural landscapes than others. But that’s just one sub-set of biodiversity.

I think it’s become a bit too much of a focus on the sustainable intensification and land sharing debate and I think that in many landscapes you’re talking about shades of gray as well as black and white.

I think it’s really hard to say, hey we’re sharing and here and sharing land there…it really doesn’t happen like that.

Organically farmers tend to know what to do. They know which forest area is going to protect their watershed so they think, “we’ll make sure we intensify for crop production and leave the rest”.

So it’s difficult to be prescriptive in the way the scientific doctrine is trying to prescribe in many ways. I think the flexibility of not adhering to two different concepts that are so black and white and understanding all the shades of gray in between is much more important.

In your chapter, you write that policy change is difficult right now because of a “dearth of evidence”. What scientific evidence do we need to improve forest policy for food security?

One of things we have highlighted in the report is the need for forest policy in terms of dietary diversity and nutrition.

I gave a presentation at UK’s Department of International Development focused primarily on the links between forests and dietary diversity based on extensive research from Africa. It was extremely well received except for one comment, and that was the one that really resonated with me because it was spot on. And that comment was “yes that’s a great message that forests and trees play an incredibly important role to the dietary diversity of particularly poorer people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to a good diet. Powerful message. But the question is …what next, what do we do with that information? Are you advocating keeping people dependent on forests?”

That’s a challenging one. Are we saying that because people are currently reliant on forests and trees no matter how rich or poor they are, then that’s a good thing? It’s a good thing environmentally but is it a good thing socially as well?

You can’t tick that box and then move onto the next problem.

It needs a much more nuanced understanding of the implications of this research of that relationship as well before you can come up with any policy formulation of any detail.

Because we do not want to keep people poor and dependence on forests if that’s to their economic detriment in the long term.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are up for discussion in September. Is this report directly talking to the SDGs?  

This global report feeds very nicely into the SDGs. There are 17 of them and I think this report is relevant to about 15 of those 17. Nutrition, environmental protection, ecosystems service provisions, food security, of course, but from a landscape perspective.

The emphasis of our report is the landscape approach and how landscape management including forests and trees and agriculture in an integrated fashion can lead to better human wellbeing and environmental outcomes which is what the SDGs are fundamentally about.

The challenge is making the link explicit and I think that’s a challenge at both the policy level and at the field level.

And I think how we do that is going to be the ultimate challenge.

For further information about Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition: A Global Assessment Report, please contact Terry Sunderland –

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