The latest edition of the biennial ‘State of the World’s Forests’ (SOFO) report launched by U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on the eve of the World Forestry Congress in Seoul lays out the critical role of trees and forests in addressing multiple global environmental, health and economic crises. It offers “pathways” for this potential to be effectively realized.
Scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) have been exploring the multiple roles of tropical trees and forests in building inclusive, resilient, and sustainable economies for decades.
In the Amazon Basin, where agricultural expansion and climate change threaten to push the biome past an irreversible ecological “tipping point“– with dire consequences at both the local and global level – the need to value, protect, and restore forest ecosystems is particularly pivotal.
We asked Manuel Guariguata, a principal scientist for CIFOR-ICRAF in Peru who specializes in tropical forest ecology and forest management for production and conservation, for his reflections on what the new SOFO report might mean in the Amazonian context.
Q: How have the interlinked crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and the emergence of new diseases made their presence felt in the Amazon over the past two years?
A: The capacity of tropical countries to address forest conservation may have been undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic. The total area deforested across the global tropics during 2020 was double that of the previous year’s; across the Amazon, the deforestation area increased by 150 percent. Shutdowns and budget restrictions of environmental agencies, as well as redeployments of law enforcement personnel to tackle the pandemic, paved the road for an increase in illegal activities.
Corporate zero-deforestation commitments may have also been relaxed during the pandemic, in order to maintain the provision of agricultural products to importing countries during COVID-19 lockdowns. In the Peruvian Amazon, forest cover loss in 2020 increased by about 37 percent on 2019 levels, along with an increase in violent incidents against Indigenous leaders and environmental defenders.
COVID-related lockdowns also prevented many people from accessing treatments for non-COVID infectious diseases. The latest World Health Organization malaria report revealed that in 2020, 14 million more cases were recorded than in 2019; there were also 69,000 more deaths, with more than half of these associated with disruptions in the provision of malaria prevention, diagnosis, and treatment due to the pandemic. For example, in the Amazon region of Loreto, COVID-19 led to near-complete closure of the primary healthcare system during 2020, which hampered the diagnosis and treatment of endemic, mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and malaria.
Q: The report outlines several pathways for supporting economic and environmental recovery simultaneously. How best might this be done in the Amazon context? What specific challenges exist for supporting “green recovery” there?
A: The report mentions halting deforestation as a key pathway. In an Amazonian context, particular attention should be given to the demonstrated role of Indigenous and local communities in this regard. It should be noted that almost half of the intact and primary forest cover across the Amazon Basin falls within formally-recognized Indigenous lands. A recent FAO report showed that from 2000 to 2016, basin-wide forest loss declined by five percent in Indigenous forestlands, compared to 11 percent outside of these. This clearly translates into massive amounts of retained carbon and reduced greenhouse emissions, and underscores the need to further strengthen collective territorial rights, while promoting community-based, sustainable forest use.
Q: How do the key messages in SOFO2022 align with the situation in the Amazon more generally? Is there anything that, from your perspective, deserves more emphasis?
A: SOFO 2022 calls for enhancing the implementation of tree- and agroforestry-based systems as key activities for restoring degraded forestlands. In fact, a recent report identified about 2,700 forest restoration initiatives in the Brazilian Amazon alone – most of which involved agroforestry and tree-planting approaches. Interestingly, only a very minor proportion of these initiatives considered natural forest regrowth a cost-effective option for recovering soil, biodiversity, and ecosystem attributes. In Brazil, legal and normative frameworks conducive to the conservation and sustainable use of secondary forests are largely non-existent, while in Peru, an absence of official government statistics of the extent, geography, and ownership, coupled with low state capacity, prevents the development of governance structures that could stimulate their sustainable management. Secondary forests remain below the radar despite their great potential to both satisfy environmental and social goals if well managed.
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