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From providing clean water to sustaining agriculture and regulating the climate, forests have an important role to play in advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were designed to be interdependent.

“Forests are essential to the SDGs, but the nature-based solutions they offer haven’t been made explicit in the 2030 Agenda,” says researcher Joleen Timko from the University of British Columbia (UBC).

As the 2020 deadline for intra-goal targets such as protecting and restoring forests comes closer, scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and UBC have explored how forests can be better integrated into policies – of all levels, all across the world – so SDGs can achieve more benefit from, and provide more support for, these ecosystems.

“We want governments, industries and local communities to consider more holistically how their actions impact forests, and how forests can be better integrated into their policies, plans and strategies, especially where competing priorities may lie,” says Timko, who is the lead author of the resulting paper.

To support this process, the paper’s authors have identified three policy clusters that are particularly relevant to forests: ecosystem services and livelihoods; the green economy; and rights, justice, equality and inclusion. This so-called ‘policy nexus approach,’ which is a first for forests, is a means of integrating goals across sectors, and reducing the risk that SDG activities will either undermine or fail to enhance one another.


The world faces the challenge of feeding a growing population, while fighting climate change and reducing deforestation.

With this in mind, researchers note the roles forests simultaneously play in sustaining agriculture, providing more than 75 percent of the world’s accessible fresh water, storing carbon, and fending off outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola.

“Policy-makers and scientists should move beyond the controversy of ‘land-sharing’ and ‘land-sparing’ approaches toward fully integrated landscape approaches,” says co-author and CIFOR Senior Associate and UBC Faculty Terry Sunderland. “Landscape-scale interventions have the potential to reconcile agriculture, conservation and other competing land uses at both social and environmental scales.”

Another challenge is moving toward a green economy that brings economic, social and environmental benefits.

For researchers, sustainable forest management (SFM) is again a way to balance objectives, such as, in this case, timber production, social outcomes and environmental concerns in the face of increasing demands for land and trees.

“This will require governments to develop locally appropriate policies and governance structures to support SFM planning and implementation; incorporate local needs, and enforce regulations,” points out the paper.

The third policy nexus examines what rights, peace and gender equality mean for forests. Researchers point out that forest governance “has long consisted of top-down and state-led management coercively restricting access and uses, and shifting forests from commons to commodities, with often narrowly defined economic or conservation objectives.”

The SDGs will not be met unless they are also achieved in and around the world’s forests. Since forests are often spaces of contestation and refuge for vulnerable populations, the paper calls on governments to “provide secure rights and improved access to forests for marginalized groups.”

“The participation of multiple stakeholders – including the voice of the marginalized – in policy-making enables greater ownership, lessens potential for conflict and improves the chances of long-term policy success,” states the paper.

Policy-makers and scientists should move beyond the controversy of ‘land-sharing’ and ‘land-sparing’ approaches toward fully integrated landscape approaches

Terry Sunderland, CIFOR Senior Associate and UBC Faculty


From Timko’s perspective, poor governance is the main obstacle to advancing an integrated landscape approach that works for both people and the planet. “One of the challenges with the SDGs is establishing governance systems that cut across sectors and are transparent in their decision-making around natural resources,” she says.

“There is a lack of understanding of the role forests play in all respects, be it climate, biodiversity or livelihoods,” she further explains. “We must figure out how to better communicate the existing evidence to policy-makers in a language and format they can understand.”

The next steps in research could involve further unpacking the relation between forests and the SDGs for each of the three policy clusters and working with a national government to identify the challenges of implementing the policy-nexus approach.

“We want the paper to start this conversation, so that forests are given the recognition they deserve for their contribution to the SDGs,” she concludes.

For more information on this topic, please contact Terry Sunderland at or Joleen Timko at
This research was supported by the University of British Columbia’s Vice-President, Research & Innovation Office.
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Topic(s) :   Restoration SDGs