A forest is so much more than just its trees

As the world’s foresters gather for IUFRO, let’s not forget about wildlife and people
Ibu Rosalina cutting Nanas Bogor. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR-ICRAF

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There is no doubt that forests play a critical role in mitigating the climate crisis. While much attention has been given to technical aspects such as selecting tree species and measuring forests’ carbon storage capacity, it is important to remember that a forest is more than just a collection of trees.

Our planet’s forests cover 31% of the global land area and are essential for biodiversity, housing approximately 80% of the world’s terrestrial species, including numerous amphibians, birds, and mammals. These ecosystems provide genetic material that improves crops and livestock, and they also serve as crucial habitats for pollinators and predators that help control agricultural pests. Additionally, forests are involved in critical processes such as regulating microclimates and cycling water.

The animals that inhabit our planet’s forests, as well as non-timber forest products such as fruits, nuts, mushrooms, firewood, and medicinal plants, are vital for humans. Forests support food and nutrition security, enhance dietary diversity, and provide livelihoods for millions of people, especially in rural tropical areas where nutrient-rich foods are often scarce. 

In a recent study in rural Zambia, we discovered that almost all surveyed households collected wild foods from various ecological zones. Forests also sustain fish populations that are crucial for many riverine communities. In Nigeria, villages near densely forested rivers consumed more fresh fish than those with less forest cover. Similarly, in Indonesia, we found that coastal households living near mangrove forests consumed substantially more fish than those in other coastal areas, including areas with aquaculture.

Furthermore, forests provide a constant supply of food from hunted wild animals, amounting to millions of tonnes of wild meat in regions where hunting is common. Balancing the protection of wildlife with maintaining food security requires thoughtful intervention. This delicate balance highlights the importance of promoting sustainable practices that conserve habitats and ensure the availability of food resources for local populations.

Efforts by local communities, NGOs, and research institutions must make progress at the grassroots level to be acknowledged and expanded through broader policies and investments. For example, the Yangambi Engagement Landscape in the Tshopo Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) exemplifies the proactive approach of the locally-led Solutions for Wildlife (SoWild) association. Here, efforts are underway to diminish local communities’ reliance on wild meat by promoting alternative sustainable animal protein sources and income-generating activities. These include initiatives such as pig and chicken farming, along with agricultural projects. These efforts aim not only to diversify dietary options but also to enhance economic opportunities within the community, fostering resilience and sustainability in the face of environmental challenges. Such initiatives highlight the potential for locally driven solutions to contribute significantly to both wildlife conservation and community well-being.

Additionally, SoWild has implemented a monitoring program where project staff collaborate with community members to install camera traps in the nearby forests. This initiative not only teaches locals how to identify animals captured on camera but also involves them in analyzing the findings. 

The project is also expanding its impact through an environmental education curriculum aimed at youth across the landscape. These include weekend forest clubs (‘Club Zamba’), a radio programme, and a travelling theatre company that visits villages to narrate stories emphasizing the significance of adopting sustainable alternatives to the commercial bushmeat trade. These efforts collectively empower communities to actively participate in wildlife conservation while fostering awareness and education among the younger generation.

In Guyana, the FAO-led Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme is collaborating with different grassroots NGOs to preserve the region’s wildlife and enhance community livelihoods in ways that preserve Indigenous identity. These activities include, among other things, managing local harvesting of wild species, implementing community-based monitoring programmes for birds, mammals, fish and turtles, managing fish stocks in the region’s rivers, and conserving yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) populations, which are a local delicacy but are declining.

The efforts our groups are dedicated to, aimed at enhancing the sustainable management of wildlife, are yielding significant results in striving for a harmonious balance between human needs and natural ecosystems. However, numerous challenges persist. Among these, one of the most important is ensuring tenure security for rural communities that use wildlife. Limited access to and rights over forest resources frequently restrict the ability of rural communities to fully capitalize on the benefits and services these resources offer. This situation not only hampers their economic potential but also undermines their capacity to safeguard these resources against large-scale exploitation.

Despite the significant contributions forests and trees make to food security and nutrition, their importance is frequently undervalued and inadequately integrated into national development and food security strategies. As we look ahead, the urgency of fortifying sustainable forest-based food sources and safeguarding their biodiversity is increasingly apparent. Projections indicate that the world’s population will surpass 9 billion by 2050. Concurrently, global challenges such as climate change, volatile energy prices, the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic instability have already exacerbated food insecurity for many communities worldwide.

Without deliberate and strategic management, the expansion of agriculture and unsustainable harvesting practices threaten to rapidly diminish the extent and resilience of our planet’s remaining forest ecosystems. This could have profound consequences not only for biodiversity but also for the millions who rely on forests for their livelihoods and sustenance.

Forests are more than carbon sinks: they are vital lifelines for millions of people, providing essential resources such as food, medicine, fuel, and building materials. They support livelihoods through a variety of ecosystem services, from water purification and soil stabilization to pollination and nutrient cycling, which are crucial for sustainable agriculture and food security. 

Moreover, forests are culturally significant, serving as homes to indigenous peoples and local communities who maintain deep spiritual, cultural, and economic ties to these landscapes. Their traditional knowledge and sustainable management practices are invaluable assets in conserving biodiversity and ensuring the long-term health of forest ecosystems.

Lauren Coad is a senior scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF, who coordinates the Bushmeat Research Initiative (BRI) and is the Principal Investigator for the EU Sustainable Wildlife Management Project and the WILDMEAT project. Contact her at l.coad@cifor-icraf.org

Amy Ickowitz is also a senior scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF and co-convenor of Nutri-scapes. Contact her at a.ickowitz@cifor-icraf.org

Julia E. Fa is a senior research associate at CIFOR-ICRAF and professor at Manchester Metropolitan University. Contact her at jfa949@gmail.com

Nathalie van Vliet is a senior associate researcher at CIFOR-ICRAF, and the coordinator for the SWM Programme in Guyana and the wildlife component of the Yangambi project. Contact her at nathalievanvliet@yahoo.com


CIFOR-ICRAF’s efforts in the Yangambi Engagement Landscape are supported by USAID and the European Commission – the latter of which also supports the SWM Programme, which is implemented by a CIFOR-CIRAD-FAO-WCS partnership.


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