Don’t undervalue tropical managed forests, says leading scientist

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Certified timber in logs pond in PT. Sumalindo Lestari Jaya 2, West Kutai district, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Timber certification is one mechanism for ensuring sustainable forest management. Photo: Michael Padmanaba/CIFOR
Certified timber in logs pond in PT. Sumalindo Lestari Jaya 2, West Kutai district, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Timber certification is one mechanism for ensuring sustainable forest management. Photo: Michael Padmanaba/CIFOR

At the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum (5–6 December in Paris) CIRAD, IUFRO and CIFOR are hosting a discussion forum: Managing and restoring natural tropical forests: Ensuring a sustainable flow of benefits for people in the context of global changeAhead of GLF 2015, we talked to Plinio Sist, Director of CIRAD’s Research Unit BSEF. Plinio speaks of his hopes for tropical forest management and a new economic thinking; one that finally accepts the real value of forests, including carbon and biodiversity. Here is the interview in full.

In the management of tropical forests there will be trade-offs between the sustainable production of goods and the conservation of environmental services. What are the greatest challenges today? How can they be met? How can the different interests be reconciled?

This is central challenge for tropical forests of today and tomorrow. Until recently, production forests have been seen mainly as a source of timber and the main objective of foresters has been to ensure sustained yield over relatively short rotation cycles: 30 to 35 years. Often, this kind of forestry was dictated by law. We therefore need to promote a new paradigm in tropical forest management over the coming years.

We can think of several ways production and conservation might be reconciled. The first is to give tropical timber a higher value and to reserve it for high-end uses. Second, illegal logging must be eradicated in order to stop the unfair competition between foresters who implement sustainable logging practices like reduced impact logging and illegal, predatory loggers. Third, good forestry practices – those that improve and promote environmental values – must be encouraged because tropical production forests cover 400 million hectares. In fact, the area under production is now bigger than primary forest estate.

It is clear that these will be the forests of tomorrow, the forests in which we must maintain high carbon stocks and high biodiversity. In the context of climate change these environmental services must internalized in markets and valued by all stakeholders.

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In the past, the environment has mostly lost out to business and development interests. How can this be changed?

If we want to fight against the effects of climate change short-term profits, based on the destruction of the environment, will have to lose their attraction. Forests, particularly tropical forests, those that hold more than one-quarter of all carbon stock on the planet, will play a key role in mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

There will have to be radical changes in our consumption habits and in our views on profit. For example, it’s commonly said that forest activities cannot compete economically with the high profits of industrial plantation of cattle ranching. This is true only if the value of environmental services provided by forests is ignored.

Orangutan in Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan, Indonesia. Tropical forests are key for the protection of biological diversity. Photo: Terry Sunderland/CIFOR
Orangutan in Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan, Indonesia. Tropical forests are key for the protection of biological diversity. Photo: Terry Sunderland/CIFOR

If, instead, you take account of the full cost of losing and replacing such high-carbon, biodiverse stock, the balance sheet starts to look very different. In such a fairer system, conservation management of forests would appear clearly as the most lucrative enterprise.

With the consequences of climate change, these environmental costs will increase while both the population and governments are becoming more and more aware that things need to change.

What role can landscape restoration play in reconciling competing interests?

If we’re to bring enable truly sound environmental Forest management and conservation must be conducted in connection with other land-use planning; forest and agriculture must be seen at landscape level in order to develop economically and environmentally sound land-use systems. In the tropics, plantations will play a stronger role, providing specific needs such as firewood, while natural timber should become high-value products, like furniture. The development of plantations should release part of the pressure on tropical forests.

The challenge today is not only to reconcile people’s economic interests with the protection of forests, but also to tackle climate change. How is this possible?

Protecting the world’s remaining tropical forests is a high priority. If we fail to protect them the consequences will be dire for every person on Earth for many generations to come.

The removal of 50 percent of the Amazon rainforest would be disastrous for the Americas as a whole—radically altering the continental climate, with longer dry seasons and huge consequences for agriculture productivity.

Governments have a responsibility to avert this kind of dangerous climate change, reversing the rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and soon. And we hope the international can make a binding agreement to do just this at the COP21 in Paris.

As a result of deforestation and forest degradation, there are millions of hectares of land degraded worldwide, particularly in developing countries. It is estimated that, for the Amazon alone these lands extend around 20 million hectares. With strong, strategic investment and technical assistance these millions could be restored to become productive again, releasing the pressure on natural forests.

Deforestation is no longer inevitable. Government, civil society, and even parts of the private sector are making zero-deforestation commitments, so there is reason to hope.

Your session will cover forests in the Amazon, Congo Basin and Southeast Asia. In South East Asia most forests have been logged and are now entering a second cycle with unknown long-term consequences. Can you describe the situation and challenges for South East Asia?

The main challenge for South East Asia is to preserve and maintain not only the remaining primary forests but also production forests, because even those lands harbor very high biodiversity and carbon stocks.

The Indonesian moratorium on new clearing licenses in primary natural forests and peatlands, announced in May 2011, should be extended to the existing concessions. The impact of the intensive silvicultural practices in these forests should be assessed at broad scale, particularly in Borneo and West Papua.

The environmental value of South East Asia’s logged forests – that is, those forests logged 20–30 years ago – must be recognized, as a matter of urgency. The region needs to research, develop and deploy new silvicultural practices aimed that reconcile timber production with the maintenance of environmental services.

Policymakers need to recognize that managed tropical forests are the forests of the future and that they will play an increasingly crucial role in the fight against dangerous climate change and biodiversity loss. Managed tropical forests are definitely worth saving.

What do you hope to achieve by participating in the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum?

I hope we will be able to sensitize the audience to the importance of tropical production forests; to keeping them in good shape. The danger is always that, once logged of their most valuable timber, these forests are neglected and often converted into pasture or industrial plantations, such as oil palm. But, in a world facing the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, that approach is outdated. These forests are extremely valuable, for many reasons, not least for the role they can play in adaptation and mitigation. At the same time, many can still provide timber and other goods, including food.

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