New research agenda for Africa’s dry forests defined at Durban

DURBAN, South Africa (3 December, 2011)_Despite the ecological and livelihood importance of dry forests, these forests have to date received far less attention from research and development interventions than humid forest systems. This research gap is incongruous with the alarming rate at which dry forests are disappearing.

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Photo by Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR

DURBAN, South Africa (3 December, 2011)_The dry forest and woodlands of Africa cover 54% of the continent and support some 64% of its population through the provision of a wide range of environmental goods and services. These multifunctional and dynamic landscapes are not just rich in biodiversity. Research has shown that they are inextricably linked to people’s broader livelihood portfolio, playing an especially important role in supporting vulnerable households, including those headed by women, those affected by HIV/AIDS and those increasingly affected by climate variability.

Despite the ecological and livelihood importance of dry forests, these forests have to date received far less attention from research and development interventions than humid forest systems. This research gap is incongruous with the alarming rate at which dry forests are disappearing.

Furthermore, changes in the drivers of deforestation and in the political, environmental and socioeconomic contexts across the region call for the need to reconsider and underscore Africa’s dry forests and the role they play in providing a range of environmental goods and services. This is especially necessary within the context of climate change, increasing food insecurity and the growing demand on these forests for energy sources.

In response to these challenges (and potential opportunities), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in association with its partners and key stakeholders, convened a one-day international event on 1 December 2011, ‘Dry Forests Symposium: Defining a new research agenda for Africa’s dry forests’, alongside the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa.

The event provided a global platform for representatives from the research and development sector to openly discuss the challenges and opportunities faced in the sustainable use of dry forests, within broader agricultural landscapes. Bringing together over 100 scientists, practitioners and policy makers, representing a wide range of institutional interests, the symposium was organised around a number of main themes:

  • climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • food security
  • demand for energy
  • sustainable management of dry forests
  • policies and institutional support for sustainable management.

During the wrap-up session, Dr Bob Scholes of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), brought together the main issues resulting from both the keynote presentations and the subsequent sub-plenary discussions.

Dry forests are unique tree-based systems that are co-dominated by other vegetation, such as grasses, and hence provide important repositories for insects (which are often pollinators of agricultural crops), and opportunities for livestock grazing. Such multiple use is an important element of dry forests and provides considerable ecological and social resilience to climate change and associated extreme weather events for example.

However, multi-functionality is scale-dependent and over-elaborate attempts at integrating such landscapes will ultimately be less successful. Thus understanding the inherent trade-offs in managing landscapes both for conservation and production is critical.

The human populations that inhabit dry forest systems are much more integrated into their ecological process. For example, livestock grazing has an effect on regeneration as does fire management. The intricate biological, social and institutional inter-linkages that characterise dry forests will need to be better understood in future management initiatives. For example, what role do such systems play in the provision of ecosystem services?

Agriculture and dry forests are inextricably interlinked and the inclusion of trees on cropping systems is an important element of multi-functionality. As such, “farm forests” have a key role to play in the provision of ecosystem services by providing the ecological correlate of natural tree-based systems. In addition, natural assisted regeneration on agricultural fields and other production systems has a considerable role to play in maintaining trees on such systems and has a potentially crucial role in climate change mitigation.

Long-term research for development is probably the only way forward: there are no quick fixes to the problems facing dry forests, and new, innovative financing opportunities will need to be investigated. In addition, one key message that came out of the day’s discussions was that there is much to learn from past experience, both positive and negative.

Cross-cutting issues such as gender and tenure need to play a much more prominent role in any future dry forest research agenda. Understanding land and resources access and who benefits from the goods and services from dry forests will be an essential element of future management initiatives.

More generally, the symposium highlighted the fact that many institutions have common interests and aspirations with regard to a future dry forest research agenda and, as such, highlighted significant opportunities for new collaborations and networks.

Based on the scientific discussions and recommendations from this meeting, CIFOR will be elaborating a formal strategy for dry forest research, but in close collaboration with partners such as ICRAF, FAO, the World Bank, IIED and other key stakeholders who also have ongoing research and development interests in dry forests.

While it was recognised that dry forests have indeed been somewhat undervalued, much of what was discussed in the symposium was not new. The challenge is how to configure future research strategies in a way that is fresh and compelling. Taking a systems approach, i.e. linking both conservation and production functions, is perhaps one means of doing so.

We look forward to working together in the development of future dry forest research agenda for Africa.

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