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In 2017, Forests News traveled from the peatlands of Indonesia to the bounteous forests of the Amazon and the biodiverse Congo Basin to uncover the top issues facing forests and people around the world.

We followed global processes addressing the urgent concerns of climate change and sustainable development, turned the spotlight on gender inequalities and indigenous rights in land use, and asked the people of Burkina Faso what they had for lunch.

In this eventful year for research and action on forests and the people who depend on them, many new discoveries were made and partnerships formed that will set the path ahead for work in 2018 and beyond.

From the world of stories reported on in the past year, here is just a taste of our best-performing articles of 2017.

   A geocolor image of Tropical Storm Harvey over the Gulf of Mexico on 24 August 2017. A growing body of theory and evidence suggest plausible links between forest loss and the increased incidence of destructive cyclonic storms like this one. Photo by NOAA/NASA GOES Project

FORESTS VERSUS HURRICANES

As hurricanes ripped through the United States and the Caribbean in the second half of 2017, questions were raised over why these destructive storms seemed to have descended so suddenly, following a relative lull of 12 years.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were among 17 consecutive storms that made the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season the costliest on record, causing USD 200 billion worth of damage in the US alone.

Douglas Sheil, an associate of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), found some explanation in an analysis of the links between forest cover and cyclonic storms, in what would become the year’s most popular piece on Forests News.

Based on research conducted in collaboration with scientists at CIFOR, Sheil put forward the hypothesis that because forests and cyclones share a fundamental relationship to atmospheric moisture and dynamics, more forests could mean fewer and less destructive storms. Conversely, forest loss could raise the likelihood of storms, particularly in large forested areas like the Amazon, he argued.

“Forests play multiple roles in sustaining the global water cycle and stabilizing the climate, and removing forest will influence these processes negatively. We can now also add a possible increase in cyclonic storms to the list of potential effects,” he wrote.

“Ignoring the plight of forests is asking for trouble.”

   The beginnings of a planted forest in Victoria, Australia. CIFOR Photo/Himlal Baral

‘GREEN DESERTS’ OR FUNCTIONAL FORESTS?

If a tree is planted in a plantation, can it be considered part of a forest? This is the controversial question at the heart of ongoing debate over the potential contributions of tree plantations to global efforts on Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) and to environmental and human well-being.

Critics label plantations ‘green deserts’ for their perceived lack of benefits to conservation of plant or animal species. But from the perspective of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), some plantations may be considered ‘planted forests’, which are “composed of trees established through planting and/or through deliberate seeding of native or introduced species”.

According to this perspective, some plantations may operate like functional forests – albeit at a reduced capacity to natural forests – by providing ecosystem services like timber, clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration, and even habitats for wildlife.

Researchers from CIFOR and the University of Melbourne in 2017 promoted a new framework for assessing the ecosystem goods and services of planted forests. Applying their framework to different types of land uses, they found that planted forests outperformed other uses like agriculture or pasture for almost all ecosystem services measured, in some areas rivalling natural forests.

The scientists hoped their findings would contribute to the case for planted forests in restoration efforts, while conserving standing natural forests.

“By increasing the area of plantations for timber production on degraded lands, we can reduce the pressure to clear natural forests,” CIFOR scientist Himlal Baral said.

   Industry in Gunung Lumut, East Kalimantan, Indonesia, on the island of Borneo.

BORNEO MAP REVEALS HOW MUCH HAS CHANGED

On Borneo, the world’s third largest island, “What a difference four decades make,” says CIFOR scientist David Gaveau.

Gaveau and colleagues in 2017 combined data from 40 years of maps of the island to put together an interactive Atlas of Deforestation and Industrial Plantations in Borneo. The resulting map reveals a decline in forest cover from 76% of the island in 1973 to only 50% in 2016.

The interactive atlas not only shows the extent of forest loss, but for the first time offers the opportunity to distinguish companies that practiced deforestation from those that avoided it. Users can search the atlas for data on oil palm or pulpwood concessions, see which oil palm concessions are certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and the speed at which forest is being converted to plantations.

Filters for country, province and remaining peat area further allow users “to get the big picture of corporate land use on the island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei,” Forests News reported in February, in one of the year’s most popular posts.

An update to the atlas in November added a new function to Analyze Land Use Near Mills, providing “verified information on the location of palm-oil mills, and the deforested area within a 10-kilometer radius, as detected annually by satellites,” wrote Gaveau and his colleague Mohammad Agus Salim.

When combined with the earlier tool to Analyze Land Use in Concessions, this allows users to trace supply chains back to particular mills and plantations, and offers a clearer picture of the impact of industry on Borneo’s rainforests.

   Though REDD+ is nearing its tenth anniversary, its effectiveness continues to be debated by scientists. CIFOR Photo

IT’S TOO SOON TO BURY REDD+

As REDD+ approached its tenth anniversary in 2017, critics claimed that the scheme had reached the end of its lifespan, and that the market-based logic underlying it was fundamentally flawed.

But CIFOR scientists and associates, who work closely on REDD+ from international processes through to communities on the ground, responded that the scheme, though troubled, is not dead.

Since 2007, the scheme to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) has expanded to promotion of conservation and sustainable management of forests, as well as enhancement of forest carbon stocks (covered by the ‘+’).

What started out as a market-based mechanism has evolved into a kind of results-based aid, financed by governments, civil society and the private sector, not by a global carbon market as initially planned, the scientists argued in a widely read report on Forests News.

“People think transformational change is quick because it sounds explosive, but it takes a long time to change business as usual,” said CIFOR scientist Amy Duchelle.

Duchelle urged more rigorous analysis of the successes and failures of REDD+ as a conservation approach, rather than rushing to condemn it and looking for a new fad.

“Otherwise we miss the opportunity to learn important lessons – based on empirical evidence – about why different approaches have or have not worked under different circumstances,” she said.

   A smallholder and his wife harvesting timber in Cameroon. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi

ILLEGAL LOGGING: A RUSSIAN NESTING DOLL

“Illegal logging is not a simple straightforward issue; rather it is like a Russian doll containing layers within layers.”

This was the metaphor employed by Robert Nasi, now CIFOR’s Director General, and colleagues Pablo Pacheco and Paolo Cerutti in their 2017 analysis of a Rapid Response Assessment of illegal logging and the timber trade issued by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) in late 2016.

As with a Russian nesting doll, the scientists argued in their analysis on Forests News, in the case of illegal logging, “if we concentrate only on the exterior, we are unlikely to understand what is happening and to make a real difference.”

The stereotypical picture of a big, bad illegal logger preying on the vulnerabilities of indigenous communities and fleeing with the profits doesn’t accurately reflect the complexities of the reality, they said.

In fact, the label of ‘illegal logger’ can equally apply to the ‘big fish’ in this scenario as it does to the ‘small fish’ – local people who harvest trees for their own livelihoods or for small-time timber trade. And when these ‘small fish’ lack the means to comply with regulations, or laws don’t apply to their scale of harvesting, they can be effectively criminalized for using their forests, or made invisible in national data on logging.

A better understanding of the actors involved, as well as more reliable data on timber harvesting, processing and exports are needed to fully comprehend the state of illegal logging and what can be done about it to conserve the world’s forests, the scientists concluded.

Responsibility also lies with consumers to ask questions about the origin and processing of the timber products we buy, for the “long-term health of humanity on this planet,” they urged.

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Illegal logging Oil palm