For forests, food and the future, it’s all about biodiversity

The world must consider forests in efforts to meet Sustainable Development Goals.
Habitat yang bernilai konservasi tinggi penting bagi keberlangsungan harimau Sumatra, yang jumlahnya kurang 500 ekor di alam liar. Kredit foto wikicommons

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The forests of Riau were rich with sound when Andjar Rafiastanto first visited the central Sumatran province in 1998. The calls of black-furred gibbons echoed through the trees, along with the chatter of hornbills, Sumatran peacock pheasants and dozens of other bird species.

But the widespread establishment of oil palm plantations has precipitated dramatic change over the past 17 years.

“Now, it’s very different. Maybe you can hear a few types of birds. There are still some islands of forest among the plantations that can support gibbons, but their calls are very distant,” says Rafiastanto, Indonesia Manager for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), based in Bogor, West Java.

“Gibbons are omnivores and eat types of fruit, leaves, tree bark and other foods that are only found in forests, and it’s the same for many other animals. When you concentrate land use into one species of plant, be it oil palm or rubber, then many animals lose their food source and may become locally extinct,” Rafiastanto says.

While the archipelago nation is home to approximately 515 mammal species—more than any other country—it also has the world’s highest number of threatened mammals at 184 species, including orangutans and Sumatran elephants, tigers and rhinos.

The interests of sustainability and development are not necessarily the same thing

Terry Sunderland

Much of this threat is attributable to Indonesia’s rapid rate of forest clearance and conversion.

This trend is not unique to Indonesia. As a result of agriculture, logging or development, forest loss has inevitably led to biodiversity loss as similar stories have played out across the world’s equatorial forests—home to 80% of terrestrial biodiversity.


Mindful of this and similar trends, in 2002 the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) set a global target to achieve a “significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss” by 2010 — a pledge that was incorporated into the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But as deforestation continued through the 2000s this target was not met. The UN General Assembly then declared 2011–2020 the “Decade on Biodiversity”, and governments agreed to the Aichi Targets.

Biodiversity also features in the UN’s draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the world’s leaders and their deputies will finalize in New York in September.

In their current draft formulation, the 17 SDGs champion multiple causes in addition to halting biodiversity, including improving food security, nutrition and health, and providing economic opportunity and access to energy for all, while combating climate change and sustainably managing forests.

But balancing these often-conflicting interests will not be easy.

“The interests of sustainability and development are not necessarily the same thing. For example, the greatest cause of biodiversity loss is agriculture,” says Terry Sunderland, Principal Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“This is the fundamental problem: firstly getting the various parties to talk to one another, given the sectorial nature of these agendas, and secondly, once you do, acknowledging what the trade-offs might be and negotiating them.

“The sectorial approach, that ‘we’re conservationists, and we don’t work with anybody else’, doesn’t necessarily result in good environmental outcomes,” Sunderland adds.

“The way that we’ve started to think about these things is more from a perspective of an integrated landscape model, so you take these competing land uses and you negotiate and plan accordingly.”


The integrated landscape model is essentially the incorporation of different land uses into a single management process. Working with multiple institutions and governments, Sunderland has contributed to the formulation of ten principles that have helped to define the “landscapes approach”.

Key themes include greater stakeholder involvement, improved trust and transparency among stakeholders, greater private sector engagement, and recognition of the economic value of the “ecosystems services” upon which both local and global populations rely.

We shouldn’t just be talking about agriculture, or just forestry, or health in isolation. The nature of how these things are connected and feedback into one another needs to be understood

Terry Sunderland

For ZSL, the landscapes approach has yielded some success in securing wildlife corridors in and around Dangku Wildlife Reserve, South Sumatra, Rafiastanto reports.

Dangku is a mosaic of oil palm, forestry, and oil and gas extraction, interspersed with settlements. But across this landscape, the remaining patches of high conservation value habitats are essential to the survival of the Sumatran tiger, whose numbers have dwindled to less than 500 in the wild.

To combat illegal clearance and settlement, ZSL has set up patrols tracking tiger movements and blocking human encroachment on protected land. The corridors between forested areas provide vital connectivity between protected areas, enabling tigers to move through the landscape and reducing human–tiger conflict.

“We use Dangku wildlife sanctuary as an anchor but tigers don’t recognize borders and they move without seeing that it’s a national park or a plantation area. And so we must engage with different local actors—be they local settlers or palm oil producers—who may come into contact with them,” Rafiastanto says.


While saving tigers and other charismatic species tends to get the most popular attention when it comes to biodiversity conservation, the importance of biodiversity goes much further—it contributes to the well-being of humans and of the planet as a whole.

Many examples emerge in the area of food security, nutrition and health alone: Wild resources support the multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry, forest foods provide diverse and nutritious diets for hundreds of millions of people across the world, and biodiversity protects against pests and disease.

Biodiversity also underpins much of modern agriculture.

“Research has found that plantations work better when they are adjacent to forests and can benefit from the ecosystem services they provide, like watershed services, soil fertility, pollination, seed dispersal and nutrient cycling. Research has found in some cases reductions in yield can occur the further you get from natural forests,” Sunderland says.

Despite this clear connection, the draft SDGs keep biodiversity—and forests—in the “environment” goal (No. 15), with ending hunger and promoting health covered in goals 2 and 3, respectively. Proponents of the landscapes approach want greater emphasis on the interdependencies between these interests.

“Perhaps it’s implicit to all 17 SDGs that they’re all linked somehow, but it could be more explicit,” Sunderland says.

“We shouldn’t just be talking about agriculture, or just forestry, or health in isolation. The nature of how these things are connected and feedback into one another needs to be understood.”

For more information on CIFOR’s work on biodiversity, landscapes and food security, please contact Terry Sunderland at t.sunderland@cgiar.org.

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