Forest science for the future: Back to the drawing board?

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Scientists discuss best way forward at IUFRO XXV congress

How can forest research and science, the foundations of the science of natural resource management, be renewed amid unprecedented global challenges?

At the 25th congress of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), in Curitiba, Brazil, the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) hosted an official side event. It involved six top scientists from partner organizations, in addition to congress delegates who discussed priorities for future forestry research.

The talk stirred up a wide-ranging debate among scientists on how to confront the ongoing planetary crises such as climate change, threats to biodiversity and deforestation in a unified manner.

The title of the session was “Research on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry: What’s Next?

“We could be tempted to rush to the drawing board, but before this, we need to go back to the incredible amount of former research and see whether it worked or not,” said Vincent Gitz, director of FTA, the leading international research program exploring how forests, trees and agroforestry play a central role in food security, nutrition and sustainable development through improved production systems.

Scientists recognize that efforts to reach the Paris Agreement target to keep global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels will not be met without reductions in emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation.

Forest loss accounts for about a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions. Agricultural emissions, 35 percent of which occur in developing countries, contribute a similar amount.

This puts reducing deforestation and restoring landscapes on the menu for research attention. The sheer volume of research findings can seem daunting, which include context-specific, typology-related and other topics, but through careful synthesis, real solutions and methods can be found, participants said.

As well, gaps in knowledge exist in terms of options for sustainable land management, for too little is known about the relative costs and benefits of land management and restoration approaches, said panellist Andrew Miccolis, Brazil country coordinator for World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

“Everybody is talking about landscape approaches, but what’s really put into practice?” he queried. “We need to better understand trade-offs between agriculture, different agroforestry and forestry systems; what are the options for different contexts, for different landscapes”

Financial focus

Through benefiting from local economic value in conserving forests, communities will be able to tackle the causes of deforestation and forest degradation, and benefit from full institutional and political commitments of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions caused by Deforestation and forest Degradation), said panellist Amy Duchelle, team leader of Climate Change, Energy & Low Carbon Development Team at CIFOR.

“On restoration, we could learn from the experience of REDD+ and also explicitly link to REDD+,” she said.

To date, challenges have included agreeing how to measure forest emissions levels upon which payments should be based, what costs payments should cover and who among governments, subnational programs or local people should be paid.

Many REDD+ initiatives are currently funded by CG donors.

“There is still a clear need for rigorous assessments and how to attribute benefits to a determined intervention,” Duchelle said. “We’re at an important moment regarding finance: the first results-based payments for REDD+ have been disbursed in 2019; market based mechanisms for forests may be emerging. Much more work is needed on reference levels, as well as on units for offsetting, issue of permanence.”

Brazil was approved for a $96.5 million payout under REDD+ in February 2019 in return for reducing deforestation in 2014 and 2015, based on the concept that by slowing down deforestation according to previously measured reference levels, trees that would have been cut down were not.

“With REDD+ we’re making a large scale policy and intervention experiment,” Duchelle said. “REDD+ provides an opportunity to measure and attribute benefits to a determined intervention. And it’s gaining traction in a growing number of countries.”

But to be effective research needs to reflect not only on the ‘what,’ but also on the ‘how’,” Gitz said.

Evaluating change

“We’re in a transformative period and research needs to adapt to these changes, to new pathways for solving complex issues,” said panellist Yanxia Li, senior program officer at International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, organization having joined FTA in 2017. “Research needs to be able to create transformative processes that bring science to real practice.”

In a similar vein, Edwin Cedamon, post-doctoral fellow with Australia’s University of Adelaide said that a greater effort must be made to increase the reach of communications outreach to development and agricultural and forestry extension workers on the frontlines, typically at provincial and municipal government levels.

“We need to know how much our knowledge is reaching these people and what FTA technology and innovation are lacking for them,” Cedamon said. “There is little if not nil knowledge resources and or materials readily available in local extension and development service offices.”

Transparent trajectory

Misleading messages can also create hurdles, participants said.

Maria Brockhaus, professor of International Forest Policy at Finland’s University of Helsinki insisted on the importance of credibility. “We need to be transparent about failure, she said. “The tipping points are crucial, we really need to be credible.”

Pablo Pacheco, Global Forest Lead Scientist with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature supported this notion.

“The worlds of science and society are disconnected,” he said. “There’s the question of credibility – you need to make your assumptions clear. We also have be careful about misleading messages.”

“Deforestation is not a problem of forestry but of agriculture, a challenge that can be addressed in part through further research on policies on agriculture and land use,” said panelist Roger Villalobos, who works with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE)

Natural forest management is the most powerful tool for forest conservation – we need more research on policies that have an impact on forests like on migration,” he added. “We need better communication with society, farmers, decision makers.”

Urgent action

“We have no more time – we need to use what we have already learned,” said panellist Plinio Sist, director of the Forests and Societies Unit at the French Agricultural Centre for International Development (CIRAD, a managing partner of FTA). “Our current knowledge is enough to call for action.”

Sist expressed a sentiment that was echoed throughout the IUFRO congress, held under the shadow of uncertainty brought about by the climate crisis, on the heels of U.N. Climate Week in New York.

Further research is required to understand complex systems, but the situation in deforestation and biodiversity loss is so urgent that the focus should be on requesting specific actions, Sist said, adding that scientists must not shy away from initiating transformative processes to influence policy.

“We’ve accumulated enough knowledge to develop applicable solutions and concrete actions to fight deforestation and for climate change mitigation, now it is time to act” According to Sist, it’s a responsibility of scientists to also act as evidence-based advocates and activists.

Communications and interventions are central, said Gitz in his concluding remarks as moderator, adding that scientific investigations must start from the ground up – putting the needs of people first and then determining which trees are best suited to the landscape—the only way we can do this is by reshaping our approach to managing the landscape spaces within which we work.

He left the door open for further discussion within FTA, recommending action-based research which, he said, must be innovative, strongly transformative and demonstrate concrete results.

By Julie Mollins, communications specialist.

FTA is the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, INBAR, ICRAF and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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