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When it comes to caring for forests, it’s not only a matter of what forests can do for us, or what we can do for forests. Rather, both sides of the equation must be considered in equal measure. In honor of this year’s International Day of Forests on 21 March, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Robert Nasi gives Forests News a brief rundown on what’s happening in different forests around the world, the importance of private investment in restoration and CIFOR’s unique role in all of it.

Today, we’re marking the International Day of Forests. What is the state of the world’s forests?

Not as good as we would like to have it. If you look at the various types of forests using a pretty rough classification, the boreal forest has had some problems because of climate change, infestation of pests and a large amount of fire growth. And it is the largest forest on earth, even bigger than the tropical forest. So the situation is a bit complicated there, and with climate change and melting of permafrost, it can be even worse.

The temperate forest has been increasing in size during the last five years based on various reports, but the increase is mainly in two plantations. But in a sense, the temperate forest is probably the [forest] that is faring best for the time being, except that we do have some pest problems like the emerald ash borer that is wiping out entire species in Europe.

In the tropical forest, which is the main remit of CIFOR, there has been a lot of emphasis on wet or humid forest – what you call ‘high forest’ – and we have had some reduction of deforestation, such as in Brazil. Although deforestation is still too high, it has reduced in tropical forests. But we still have problems linked to degradation. I think that 2017 was the first year when there were more emissions linked to degradation than to deforestation, so that’s important.

Another aspect of the tropical forest is the dry forest, and with that we really have a problem. It’s mostly in the tropics, the most degraded, the most endangered, and where deforestation hasn’t stopped. Deforestation in the Amazon has been reduced, but not deforestation in the dry area of Cerrado or other savannas, and that’s really a problem. The dry land, the dry forests are generally more threatened and overlooked in the international dialogue compared to wet forests. So, if you have to summarize, the situation of forests in the world is not as good as it should be, given the importance of forests.

I think that 2017 was the first year that there were more emissions linked to degradation than to deforestation, so that’s important

Director General of CIFOR Robert Nasi

This year’s theme is ‘Forests and Sustainable Cities’. What research is CIFOR doing in this area? 

We don’t really work in cities or on urban forestry, but there has been quite an interesting series of work in the last couple of years on the importance of trees in terms of mitigating climate. What CIFOR is doing in terms of cities and urbanism and forestry is looking at the link between the fact that we are moving toward the urban world – more than 60% of the population is in cities – and the fact that these cities are creating a big call for resources coming from outside. That’s important, and we need to keep understanding the link between cities and the natural environment. And it’s something that appears in different ways: migration from forest areas to cities changing what’s happening in the forests, or the increasing size of cities deforesting fertile forest land. At CIFOR we are working on these issues, the impact of urbanization on the forest, and the impact of migration toward urban centers on the people who are left behind.

In 2018, CIFOR is celebrating its 25th anniversary. In its time, it has developed a strong reputation as the leading research institution for tropical forests. In what way has CIFOR advanced the agenda for the world’s forests?

The main contribution of CIFOR to forestry and forests has been looking beyond forests and having players and stakeholders understand that many problems affecting forests happen because of situations outside of forests and the classic forestry sector. This work that we have been doing beyond the classical forestry sector – like forest management or reduced impact logging – sets CIFOR apart compared to other organizations. And that, I think, has been the major achievement of all the work and impact we’ve had during the last 25 years.

We have done some work in classical forestry, but this is not where we’ve had the most impact. We’ve had the most impact in terms of expanding the notion of forestry, showing how forestry contributes to sustainable development and how a lot of things happening in forests are linked to decisions made outside of the forestry sector.

Looking ahead, what are CIFOR’s research priorities coming up?

We are trying to achieve recognition of the role of forests for society as a whole and not only for producing timber. This means understanding what is happening to forests because of outside factors like demography migration, understanding the role of forests in mitigating and adapting to climate change and also the impact climate change will have on forests.

Because of the international agenda, there is a lot about degradation and restoration. This is something into which we will invest significant efforts, especially moving from commitments into action. There are a lot of commitments: to restore such amount of forest, to give back such amount of forest to local people… But we need to go beyond and into action, and what CIFOR can do is to provide the evidence and scientific backstopping to move from commitment to action.

What CIFOR can do is to provide the evidence and scientific backstopping to move from commitment to action

Director General of CIFOR Robert Nasi

And in moving from commitment to action, finance is one of the key pieces missing sometimes from Forest Landscape Restoration. In what ways can the private sector step up to these commitment and actions?

The issue of financing for forests has been recurring and vexing for as long as CIFOR has existed and before. It’s not simply linked to the restoration issue. It is clear that given all the restoration commitments, there is not enough public money to achieve them. So we’d like to bring private sector invesment into restoration, and to have the private sector investing in restoration, we need to have a clear understanding and consideration of the economics of restoration.

So, it is not simply about restoring forests to like they were before being degraded (sometimes possible, sometimes not). It’s about looking at restoration as something that generates economic value, and this value can both interest an investor and convince people that the forest should not be degraded again. We can attract the private sector only if we can show that the investment makes sense. Otherwise [reforestation will come from] grants from public money, and there is not enough public money.

In many cases, there will be forests restored only for protection, but I don’t think that will be the majority of forests restored. A lot of the forests and land that has to be restored must be restored for economic activities, so that we don’t go again into primary forests and degrade them.

So we know the words “taking a more comprehensive approach” in regards to the way we look at forests. In that sense, CIFOR has been a pioneer in linking forests to the global development agenda as well as to the landscape approach, and one of CIFOR’s key projects is the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF). Could you tell us a bit more about GLF?

The GLF is more than a project. It’s really an aspiration to create a platform where all the stakeholders interested in forests and forestry can come and present their issues, discuss and look for solutions. What really makes the nature of GLF unique is that it’s not only forestry-related. We also consider other types of land use. It’s not just for forestry research organizations, not only for the public donors, not only for the private sector. It’s a platform that’s trying to bring everybody around the table and create a movement, so that our natural resources are better and more sustainably managed for the livelihoods of the people living there, biodiversity and ecosystem services for natural value. That’s really what makes the GLF different from other more thematic initiatives. It’s the idea that we are going to create a movement. We are going to create a community of people interested in sustainably managing the place where they are living – the landscape.

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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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