Explainer: Five issues facing forests

From biodiversity to carbon to equity, what are the planet's most pressing forest concerns?
In Sukabumi, West Java, Indonesia, fisherman Dadin uses a traditional net to catch fish in a local lake. Photo by Ricky Martin/CIFOR-ICRAF

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The world needs its forests. In fact, it needs more of them. There are currently about three trillion trees on Earth – only half as many as there were at the start of human civilization. To slow climate change, we need both to protect the forests and trees we have, and to plant many more (of the right kinds, in the right places.) To do so, we need to get clear about what’s getting in the way of current and future forests’ thriving – and the actions at multiple levels that are needed to move forward. In the lead-up to the June 2024 International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) World Congress, explore five key issues facing forests.


 1: Climate resilience

The effects of climate change are threatening forest health globally. Shifting temperatures and increasingly frequent extreme events like fire, floods, and droughts are damaging forest ecosystems, sometimes indelibly. Meanwhile, forest pests and pathogens are finding new homes, in many cases expanding their ranges as conditions change. In this troubling context, researchers around the world are working to better understand and communicate how to help trees and forests survive these changes, such as by helping governments to track and respond to pest and pathogen invasions and working out what trees might thrive in shifting climatic conditions.


 2: Using forests sustainably

While it’s clear we need to hold onto our forests, that doesn’t mean locking them up and throwing away the key. In fact, if we want to expand the amount of tree cover on the planet, we must work out how to co-exist with forests and trees, and make use of their resources and services in ways that meet food security and livelihood needs without over-compromising on ecological integrity. That means developing a responsible forest bioeconomy, which makes use of renewable biological resources – such as crops, forests, fish, animals and microorganisms – to produce food, health, materials, products, textiles and energy. Work on sustainable value chains and investments, alongside improving certification for forest products, is key to raising standards and expectations in this arena. 


3: Preserving biodiversity and ecosystem services

Our planet’s biodiversity is under unprecedented threat, driven largely by habitat loss – including of the trees and forests that billions of species call home. When we lose species, it puts ecosystem functioning at risk and can jeopardize the essential services that we rely on – often before we know how or why. Research on forest genetic resources aims to better understand the biodiversity in forests and safeguard it for future applications: at present, such resources’ potential to help maintain ecosystem services, mitigate climate change, increase resilience and provide forest products is understudied and largely untapped. 

A landscape-level perspective can also be helpful for biodiversity preservation. Forests sit within larger landscapes that may contain areas occupied by other land uses such as agriculture and urban centres. Through multistakeholder engagement at the landscape level, and efforts like planting more trees on farms and growing food in cities, we can start to reconnect fragmented wild habitats, provide stepping-stones between protected area networks, and conserve soil biodiversity.


4: Equity and inclusion

Our forests are expected to serve a multitude of global and domestic interests and needs. And, about 1.6 billion people around the world depend directly on forests and tree-based landscapes for their livelihoods and well-being. But not all those people have equal power to decide how those forests are managed, or how resources are shared and distributed.

As such, it’s critical to take an equity lens to the policies and instruments used in forest governance and management and consider carefully the distribution of costs and benefits among right holders, stakeholders, and those whose rights are not yet realized. And, we need to do this in ways that consider how scientific knowledge is produced, and that value the contributions of multiple actors and ways of knowing. Scaling up successful policies and instruments addressing these topics – and managing their trade-offs – is one of the key challenges for transformative change toward resilient societies. 

But how do we do this? Research on gender and social inclusion offers tools, frameworks, methods and approaches to amplify the voices of forest-reliant people of all genders, age groups, and ethnicities around the world, in alignment with key equity issues like forest tenure security and climate finance. 


5: Ongoing stewardship 

Attention is the beginning of devotion,” wrote nature poet Mary Oliver. Our future needs more people who know  forests deeply – and care for them deeply, too. Yet urbanization and the attention economy too often pull us in other directions, whilst so much remains to be known. However, many of the tools to considerably hone our knowledge and practice are already in our hands. Innovations in forest research are enabling a paradigm shift in the way we manage and monitor our planet’s forests, with technology like remote sensing and artificial intelligence vastly improving the accuracy of forest accounting and predictions, facilitating much more precise and timely intervention.

Improved forest management also requires a groundswell of informed and passionate people. Projects like the Zamba Clubs, which aim to educate and inspire school students about environmental issues in the Yangambi Engagement Landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), speak to the importance of raising a generation of young forest experts that will safeguard and enhance these resources for future generations.

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