This article first appeared as an op-ed on 21 March on Thomson Reuters Foundation.
For years we have celebrated forests, sung their praises and counted their many virtues. Today, the International Day of Forests, is no different. It’s a day for headlines and celebrations. Yet the realities of deforestation and degradation will continue today and tomorrow.
If we treasure our forests as much as we say we do, it’s time to consider a different approach to protecting them. First, and this may sound counter intuitive, we must start in the world’s cities.
Consider this: between 1960 and 2015, the world’s population more than doubled to 7.5 billion people. In the space of little more than a generation, the global population surged and we became a planet of urban dwellers. For the first time, more than half of us now live in cities.
That explosive urban growth has overshadowed an absolute increase in rural populations as well. Worst of all, both have contributed to tremendous pressures on global forests and natural landscapes in general. The world continues to lose tropical forests at an alarming rate and degradation, the process of diminishing the biological functions of forests, accounts for about a quarter of carbon emissions associated with tropical forests.
As migrants move into cities, their lifestyles and consumption patterns change. Inhabitants of cities eat more animal-based and processed foods and they use more energy. Those changing tastes increase the need for agricultural land for raising animals and growing the crops that feed them. At the same time, rising demand for housing pushes the boundaries of cities into neighboring forests and farmland.
According to some estimates, urban expansion will result in as much as a 2.4 percent loss in global croplands by 2030, with Asia and Africa bearing much of the brunt. These changes are often significant and modify habitats and land cover, as well as hydrology and biogeochemistry.
Increasing levels of inequality, job and food insecurity in cities around the world means recent urban migrants often continue to rely on resources from forests both within cities and on the urban periphery, furthering accelerating degradation, deforestation and loss of biodiversity, as they adjust to a cash-based lifestyle.
The way we’re currently tackling deforestation isn’t working. At the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) we’re trying to overturn the practice of protecting forests in isolation, and instead considering how cities, farmland and forests fit together. It’s the same with a wide range of other environmental challenges including building sustainable cities and managing watersheds – even climate change.
So what is the solution if we are going to protect forests while accommodating this historical shift from the countryside to cities?
It means thinking about these problems holistically and using a so-called landscape approach. The good news is that we’ve already started laying the groundwork.
The landscape approach includes social, political and economic dimensions alongside ecological and physical ones. It’s not one-size-fits-all – each landscape has its own challenges and opportunities requiring a customized set of tools and addressing the varied land use concerns of multiple stakeholders. As a colleague of mine once said, it’s about muddling through – albeit with purpose – and being flexible enough to adapt to change.
The landscape approach seeks to address the complexity of the challenge the world faces, whether it is forest protection, climate change or sustainable agriculture. It is multi-disciplinary in nature and by definition seeks a multiplicity of voices. It requires listening as well as action.
Efforts like the Bonn Challenge to restore millions of hectares of forests and the Global Landscape Forum movement are building momentum to balance the needs of conservation, farming, resource industries and other land uses. Because landscapes are whole systems, they take into account the diversity of land types and uses from cities to wilderness as well as value chains.
We must also value the green spaces within the urban landscape, taking the beneficial role they play in enhancing the lives of city dwellers into account. Urban forests filter pollutants, reduce noise pollution, lower dependency on air conditioning, help protect watersheds and much more.
We’ve got a long way to go. The world has made a lot of pledges: to slow deforestation, curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit climate change, restore landscapes and protect the oceans. It won’t be easy.
It’s time we started treating forests with more than lip service. On this year’s Forests Day, let’s remember that the forests and landscapes we rely on for our wellbeing are all part of the place we call home.
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