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Agroforestry to heal damaged land from fires

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Agroforestry systems have a great potential for enhancing biodiversity by combining conservation with production
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By Florencia Montagnini, originally posted on the World Agroforestry website.

‘Well-written book useful to farmers, foresters, landowners and policy makers,’ says world expert in agroforestry in Latin America at Yale

Agroforestry systems (AFS), which combine trees and crops on the same land, can increase productivity in the short and long term while promoting biodiversity and bringing social, environmental and economic benefits to the farmer and society. They are also increasingly relevant in conservation, adaptation and mitigation of climate change, and restoration of degraded ecosystems.

This is the premise of Agroforestry Systems for Agroecological Restoration: How to reconcile conservation with Production, Options for the Cerrado and the Caatingaa book just released in English. Rich in technical and scientific information, it will be useful to many. Brazil’s Ministry of Environment has reprinted 4000 copies of the Portuguese version since it was published in 2016.

mapThe Cerrado and Caatinga are two vast biomes that are less well known outside Brazil than the Amazon rainforest but are also critically important, not only for the country, and are both facing formidable threats.

The Cerrado is a savannah, South America’s largest and the world’s most biodiverse. Interspersed with forest, its 2 million km² provide livelihoods to about 470,000 small farming families, over 80 indigenous groups, and groups like extractivists, which include rubber tappers, and quilombola communities founded by escaped slaves.

‘Some have lived there for hundreds of years and live with its diversity and extract its natural resources sustainably, while others still depend on traditional slash-and-burn,’ says the book. But rather than being a rural idyll, the Cerrado is ‘one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems due to the expansion of mechanized agriculture and the annual monocropping of soybeans, maize and cotton.’

These and other activities, such as the opening of new areas for livestock, new forests planted for pulp and charcoal, and new hydroelectric dams, lead to the clearing of some 30,000 km² per year. The Cerrado – known as ‘the cradle of water in Brazil’ – also saw an 800% rise in fires in 2019. According to the book, agroforestry could offer a solution for these problems: ‘AFS are excellent alternatives, because they respect the potential of local resources and the region’s ecological and productive possibilities.’

Geraizeiro community crossing a spring in the Cerrado of Northern Minas Gerais State. Photo: Peter Caton/ISPN
Geraizeiro community crossing a spring in the Cerrado of Northern Minas Gerais State. Photo: Peter Caton/ISPN

The Caatinga is South America’s largest dry tropical forest, covering about 844,000 km². ‘Life is extremely hard for locals, known as sertanejos,’ says the book. ‘Ever since Brazil was colonized by Europeans, the region has suffered from forest clearing for cattle grazing and charcoal production, which are still its main economic activities. Its plant cover had declined by nearly 50% by 2009.’

book coverIn the Caatinga, agroforestry systems to produce animal feed, short-cycle crops and fruit-bearing trees can improve the quality of life for farming families and others of its 27 million inhabitants, who face longstanding drought. The practice of agroforestry, says the book, can also reduce socioeconomic inequality, reverse desertification, counter soil degradation soils, and protect and make better use of native vegetation.

The book was funded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and its lead author is Andrew Miccolis, who heads World Agroforestry in Brazil. Its five chapters begin with basic concepts of ecological and landscape restoration, using a multidisciplinary, holistic approach. Likewise, several chapters present the definition of agroforestry systems and their most frequent types with details on design, implementation, financial analysis and adoption.

Andrew Miccolis, lead author
Andrew Miccolis, lead author

In total, the authors describe 11 agroforestry systems practiced in the cerrados and caatingas, placing emphasis on farmer objectives, key species, and management practices. The description of one specific system to restore a riparian zone begins with ‘No agrochemicals or heavy machinery should be used.’ The next step in this process is to plant ‘a row of fruit, wood and biomass trees (as well as bananas) followed by rows of ornamental plants, food crops and medicinal herbs’ because many of these species ‘play an important role in occupying the lower stories, maintaining microclimate and replacing grass, which is a major contributor to forest fires’. It further advises ‘intensive management of the cultivated strips and selective weeding and pruning in the natural regeneration strips to promote succession. Resulting organic matter should be piled around the native plants valued by the farmer’.

Backed by up-to-date literature, such highly detailed passages are good examples of where productive agriculture can achieve food security, landscape restoration, biodiversity conservation, and climate change resiliency, using appropriate agricultural practices that support functioning agroecosystems.

The book also displays testimonies from practitioners. Luiz Pereira Cirqueira from Araguaia in the Cerrado compares the meagre returns from five cattle on a hectare of grass with the far higher returns from a hectare of cassava with trees, saying ‘The agroforest is the way I found to make a living and I’m happy, which makes me an example for others.’


From Ceará state, farmer Ernaldo Expedito de Sá describes how agroforestry transformed his land in the Caatinga. “This area was very ugly. It was nearly all desertified, which is what happens to fallow land if you don’t feed it or protect it, out in the sun all day. Then ten years ago, I met Chico and Elviro, who were working with AFS. My dream was to produce food both for me and nature too.’

The authors also place emphasis on the use of species for recovering degraded areas, a section which is particularly beautifully illustrated. ‘Species able to store water can be vital for situations with extreme water shortage, including most of the Caatinga and Cerrado, where the

Xylopods, veritable water tanks. Source:
Xylopods, veritable water tanks. Source:

yearly dry season is well-defined and prolonged,’ says the book, adding that some species like Jacaratia spinosa and cajá-mirim

(Spondias purpurea var. lutea) have underground storage structures called xylopods that are ‘veritable water tanks’.

The conversion of degraded, simplified systems to diverse, agroecological, resilient systems is challenging, and the scaling-up of these systems will require a combination of scientific and technological innovation, policy, economic, and market incentives tailored to different scales.

The book lays out how AFS can be a tool for rural development and provides a series of successful experiences that are also in use or can be used in other tropical dry regions of Latin America as well. It is greatly enriched by diagrams, figures and excellent pictures of the AFS and other land uses, which will make it particularly useful to farmers, foresters, landowners, land managers, land use planners, and policy makers researchers and students at academic institutions. Though focused mainly on family farmers, its techniques and options can also be applied by medium to larger farmers.

Agrosilvocultural system
Agrosilvocultural system

Agroforestry Systems for Agroecological Restoration is a welcome addition to reading lists of textbooks on agroforestry and restoration that can be used by instructors and students of a full range of educational levels. It is very pleasant to read and a welcome addition to the assemblage of published works on restoration and AFS with interest and emphasis on both Latin America and worldwide.

The book can be purchased at no profit to ICRAF from HERE or downloaded from the link below.

Reviewer Yale’s Florencia Montagnini has written ten books on agroforestry in Latin America.

Florencia Montagnini is a Senior Research Scientist and Director, Program in Tropical Forestry and Agroforestry at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University. Dr. Montagnini has written ten books on agroforestry systems and ecological restoration, including a major textbook in tropical forest ecology and management, and over 250 scientific articles. She participates in Yale’s Environmental Leadership Training Initiatives (ELTI) and teaches and advises individual project courses in agroforestry, landscape restoration, and soil conservation and management. She holds honorary professorships at several universities in Latin America.

Miccolis A, Peneireiro F, Marques H, Vieira D, Arco-Verde F, Hoffmann M, Rehder T, Pereira A. 2019. Agroforestry Systems for Agroecological Restoration: How to reconcile conservation with Production, Options for the Cerrado and the Caatinga (English edition) World Agroforestry. Instituto Sociedade, População e Natureza. Brasilia. 240 pp.

This research was conducted by World Agroforestry (ICRAF) as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, 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. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) leads the Research Program in partnership with Bioversity International, Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE), Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR), ICRAF and Tropenbos International (TBI). The work of the Research Program is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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  • Scaling up sustainable forestry projects key to attracting finance

Scaling up sustainable forestry projects key to attracting finance

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An aerial view of Burkina Faso, Africa. Photo by D. Tiveau/CIFOR
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Paul Hol assesses the age of a teak tree in a plantation in Ghana.
©Form International

Continuing this new interview series on inclusive landscape finance, we hear from the corporate sector.

Paul Hol, CEO of FORM International, shares his views with Tropenbos International’s Nick Pasiecznik on what is already being achieved and, more importantly, what still needs to be done to attract more investment for reforestation of degraded forest landscapes.

FORM International is a forest management and services company that manages forest assets in Africa and delivers a range of management and financial services. It is coinvestor in the investment company Sustainable Forestry Investments (SFI).

 “The main issues are the lack of projects and the problem of scale,” states Paul. “There is also a need for stakeholder involvement, but financial sustainability and a sound business case are paramount to success.”

How are you involved in sustainable forest landscapes?

FORM International has supported sustainable forest management for more than 25 years, assisting Sustainable Forestry Investment (SFI) to attract more than USD 60 million of investment, directly benefiting more than 2,400 employees. Founded in 1992, FORM International has provided innovative services to support the implementation of best practices. In 2007, we focused our operations through the establishment of FORM Ghana Ltd.

The transformation of a degraded forest area in the Tain II Forest Reserve, Ghana, between 2014 and 2018. ©FORM International

This FSC certified plantation company integrates large-scale reforestation of degraded forest land with the needs of local villagers and the environment, while not compromising economic viability. Today, FORM Ghana manages some 18,000 hectares in close collaboration with smallholders and communities. Following successes here, SFI Tanzania Ltd. was set up in 2013 and now sustainably manages timber and sisal production on 10,000 hectares of formerly degraded forest in the Tanga region.

The transformation of a degraded forest area in the Tain II Forest Reserve, Ghana, between 2014 and 2018. ©FORM International


In parallel, FORM International partnered with SFI in 2009. SFI is an investment company based in the Netherlands. While FORM International implements projects, SFI attracts institutional and impact investors who share FORM’s belief in sustainable reforestation and who want to make a real contribution on a large scale.

It is aiming to secure investments of about USD 150 million by 2022, and wants to increase the area of reforested land to 40,000 hectares. This commitment was made during COP 21 in Paris in 2015, in partnership with the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which is an initiative of the World Resources Institute and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, a program of the African Union.

Read also: Forest finance partnerships more productive than competition

You have invested in sustainable forestry, but why have so few other organizations followed suit?

There is plenty of money, but there are too few ‘good’ projects! And it not just the lack of project ideas, but also the problem of bringing good projects to scale. The Netherlands Platform for Microfinance (NPM), for example, has significant capital to invest, but they, and similar institutions, cannot finance just a handful of farmers. To ensure impact at a large scale, we need vehicles or mechanisms that are effective and adaptable.

A very simple way to develop project ideas would be to gather a group of experts together, and send them around the world to identify good land-use practices that can be translated into bankable projects and would benefit communities and the environment.

However, there are two prerequisites. First is the essential need to listen to people, lots of different people, to understand their land-use interests. Second is the need to develop a ‘technical concept’ that works for one hectare, but that can also be scaled up. Importantly, a structure is needed to handle the finance aspects in a uniform way – and this requires organizing farmers into formal groups or associations.

What must not be forgotten is the overriding element for success, which is financial sustainability. At the moment, we are making efforts towards environmental restoration in a rather chaotic and haphazard way. Some organizations focus on protecting a single species or ecosystem, for example, others focus on a single commodity, while what we obviously need is something much broader than that.

Specifically, how is your organization addressing inclusive finance, and what are your experiences and key lessons?

We have the knowledge – look how we made this work in Europe. We started with the ‘technical concept’, mapping soil and climate types, and linked this to inputs and financial returns. Governments were strongly involved. But we didn’t consider long-term impacts.

Teak afforestation in Akumadan, Ghana – putting forests back where they once were.
©FORM International

We do include sustainability in our technical concepts, though we are still only at the early stages of analyzing, testing and determining the best ways forward. Once we do find the right answer, doors will open to accessing more finance, and convincing other stakeholders to participate

As a plantation company, we and others like us are in a key position to offer ‘good’ projects to investors, and to scale them up, i.e. to overcome the main obstacles in offering finance for reforestation. But how do we define ‘good’?

By using transparent and globally agreed standards. FORM International’s plantations are certified according to the Forest Stewardship Council’s Ten Principles for Sustainable Forest Management, or to other certification standards with similar sustainability principles.

Read also: Strengthening producer organizations is key to making finance inclusive and effective

What examples do you have of successful or promising ‘model’ approaches or innovations?

We feel that the three specific pillars of our unique investment concept offer one possible model. First, establish a good relationship with traditional landowners, farmers and local communities to ensure that plantation development will be beneficial for all, leading to a stable and long-term situation. Second, respect strict ecological and environmental standards. And third, develop plantations in a way that will allow us to meet target returns on investment.

We also need to continue to set realistic goals – and to build momentum to ensure that we meet them. For example, I led the organization of ‘Forests for the Future: New Forests for Africa’ in Accra, Ghana, in March 2016, to discuss the implementation of reforestation goals in the AFR100.

What is your vision on how best to increase finance and investment in sustainable forestry?

We must understand local needs and concerns. If landscape restoration is to succeed, it needs stakeholder involvement in a way that is financially attractive and sustainable. This means ‘inclusive finance’. This is a term that is now being used to describe what we have been doing for some time regarding reforestation of degraded lands. What makes it different from other forms of finance is that it includes local people, right from the start.

I also believe in voluntary and spontaneous development. It cannot be forced – but it can be helped. Consultant advisors, for example, will fail if they try to implement a one-size-fits-all system to build bridges between smallholders and investors.

But they can support a better positioning of farmers, organizations and companies, and build the capacities of smallholders and their organizations as a basis for what might follow organically.

I strongly believe that people can help to build such important relationships, but only in the region they work in and know, culturally, socially and economically. They can then assist in formulating and putting into place adapted, tailor-made approaches, developed from hands-on experience. Importantly, this must involve the expansion of links with local governments.

Government support for, and cooperation in this kind of project is essential, but private sector involvement is crucial to drive success, attract much-needed investments and achieve the third component of sustainability, i.e. increase the financial independence and improve the financial position of all stakeholders involved.

Forest and landscape restoration is one of the answers to climate change, but in most cases it will not be the main motivation for participants, and is likely to be different for each land user. To make such projects successful, we need each other, and every single partner – company, authority or farmer – to see the added value of participation.

By Nick Pasiecznik, Tropenbos International.

This interview has also been published on the Tropenbos International website.

This article was produced by Tropenbos International and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). 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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  • Communities restoring landscapes: Stories of resilience and success

Communities restoring landscapes: Stories of resilience and success

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This collection of 12 stories from women and men in nine countries in different parts of Africa shines a light on the efforts of communities, some of them decades-long, in restoring degraded forests and landscapes. The stories are not generated through any rigorous scientific process, but are nonetheless illustrative of the opportunities communities create as they solve their own problems, and of the many entry points we have for supporting and accelerating community effort. The stories show that leadership, social capital and cooperation, clear property rights/tenure, and supportive governance are important for successful community-based restoration. From the perspectives of communities, “success” is not only about the number of trees planted and standing over a certain terrain: it is also about the ability to secure and enhance livelihoods; to strengthen existing community relationships and to build new ones with other actors; to develop a conservation ethic among younger generations; and, in some cases, to expand the rights of excluded individuals and groups. This collection is about amplifying the voices of local people in global policy debates.

Foreword. Communities restoring landscapes: Stories of resilience and success

Story 1. Holding back the desert: One farmer’s story of restoring degraded land in the Sahel region in Burkina Faso

Story 2. Women gaining ground through reforestation on the Cameroonian coast

Story 3. Building resilience to climate change through community forest restoration in Ghana

Story 4. Thinking in tomorrow: Women leading forest restoration in Mt Kenya and beyond

Story 5. Mikoko Pamoja: Carbon credits and community-based reforestation in Kenya’s mangroves

Story 6. Rights, responsibilities and collaboration: The Ogiek and tree growing in the Mau

Story 7. Restoring Madagascar’s mangroves: Community-led conservation makes for multiple benefits

Story 8. Flood recovery, livelihood protection and mangrove reforestation in the Limpopo River Estuary, Mozambique

Story 9. Regaining their lost paradise: Communities rehabilitating mangrove forests in the drought-affected Saloum Delta, Senegal

Story 10. From the grass roots to the corridors of power: Scaling up efforts for conservation and reforestation in Senegal

Story 11. Taming the rising tide: Keeping the ocean at bay through community reforestation on Kisiwa Panza island, Tanzania

Story 12. Shaking the tree: Challenging gender, tenure and leadership norms through collaborative reforestation in Central Uganda

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  • Jurisdictional sustainability report assesses outcomes for tropical forests and climate change

Jurisdictional sustainability report assesses outcomes for tropical forests and climate change

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A man drives a horse and cart through an oil palm plantation in Brazil. Photo by Miguel Pinheiro/CIFOR

Millions of people around the world live in or near tropical forests and rely on them for their livelihoods. Thus conservation and reforestation work needs to take into account existing land uses and seek solutions that serve local communities as well as bigger-picture goals. 

Conserving and restoring these forests could represent over a quarter of the near-term solution to addressing climate change.

An increasingly popular option for managing landscapes that takes social, economic, political and ecological considerations into account – which many researchers and policymakers are now turning their attention toward – is a jurisdictional approach (JA), in which a landscape is defined by policy-relevant boundaries, and a high level of governmental involvement is at the core.

According to the authors of a new study that assesses the effectiveness of JAs in a number of locations around the world, the approach “holds tremendous potential for advancing holistic, durable solutions to the intertwined issues of tropical deforestation, rural livelihoods and food security.” There are a number of jurisdictional “experiments” underway at present, so the authors hold that “the time is ripe” for a systematic assessment to begin drawing on early lessons from these experiments in locations across the tropics.

Read more: The State of Jurisdictional Sustainability: Synthesis for practitioners and policymakers

The fruit of a collaboration between the Earth Innovation Institute (EII), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF-TF), the report comes on the 10th anniversary of the GCF-TF – a historical moment for acknowledging the progress that subnational governments have made as climate action leaders – and is being launched at the GCF-TF Annual Meeting on September 10 and 11 in San Francisco. The meeting precedes the Global Climate Action Summit, which aims to push for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action toward realizing the goals of the Paris Agreement and preventing dangerous climate change.

The report is the first comprehensive assessment of jurisdictional sustainability, and draws from evidence in 39 states and provinces in 12 countries where commitments to low-emissions development are in place, says lead author Claudia Stickler, who is a scientist at EII. She says that the majority of the jurisdictions in the study have made at least one pledge or commitment to reduce deforestation, and more than half of those have at least one policy, program or other action in place to achieve that commitment.

Amy Duchelle, a scientist at CIFOR who co-authored the study, hopes that the information will be used widely by subnational governments and the range of actors supporting these efforts toward JA.

Read also: Deep down in supply chains, zero deforestation commitments look different to what appears on paper

A farmer works with seedlings. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR


The researchers evaluated the sites’ progress toward low-emission, sustainable development, taking into account their goals and commitments, monitoring and reporting systems and multi-stakeholder governance platforms, as well as innovative policies and initiatives that are key to jurisdictional sustainability. They also assessed deforestation and emission rates and trends in depth, and explored barriers to – and opportunities for – building sustainability.

On many levels, the results were heartening: the researchers found “considerable progress” in all of the jurisdictions they studied. Around half of the jurisdictions had reduced deforestation below their Forest Reference Emission Level (FREL) over the last five years. In Brazil, states using the approach made particularly impressive progress: they were shown to have reduced deforestation by around 44% relative to their FREL. The researchers also found that on average, GDP was increasing in the sites much faster than deforestation rates: in almost all the jurisdictions, they concluded that “economic growth (signaled by GDP) appears to be decoupled from deforestation.”

Already, there has been positive feedback. According to Rafael Robles de Benítez, Climate Change Director of Quintana Roo, Mexico (a co-hosting city of the GCF-TF Annual Meeting), “This report is really useful because jurisdictions can share fundamental information about their progress with each other and partners. It also helps with planning and identifying gaps that require attention and management.”

Read also: CIFOR now hosts comprehensive REDD+ tool ID-RECCO


To realize the full potential of JAs, the political leaders putting the processes into practice need more support, the co-authors conclude. “Even the front-runners among jurisdictions [in terms of achievements in sustainability] have not seen a whole lot of benefits for their efforts,” says Stickler. Almost USD 15 billion has been pledged in support for sub-national jurisdictions (directly or via national or regional programs or funds) to pursue REDD+ and low-emissions development since 2008. But the study found that “substantially less has actually disbursed to jurisdictions in that same time period,” she says.

According to co-author and EII Executive Director and scientist Daniel Nepstad, this means that, with a few notable exceptions, “the political leaders of tropical states and provinces who want to take this on – who are ready to put the policies and programs in place to slow deforestation and support forest communities across vast regions – are not getting the partnerships that they need to make it happen.”

An oil palm smallholder in Brazil. Photo by Miguel Pinheiro/CIFOR

As such, Stickler advises that “jurisdictional governments and other actors need to continue receiving positive signals that their efforts are worthwhile and should be expanded.” They also need help accessing resources and building better processes and partnerships, she says, in order to move toward achieving their commitments to reduce deforestation and degradation, as well as to improve well-being for their citizens.

Without this kind of explicit support, these jurisdictional-level efforts risk fading into obscurity and failing to achieve the level of change required. At present, says Nepstad, “the fight against tropical deforestation is still a political ambition that is hard to get elected on if you want to be governor of a tropical forest state or province – and that is a problem.”

At the meeting, Mary Nichols, California Air Resources Board Chair, emphasized how the GCF-TF, which California helped create, has grown to include governments together holding a third of all tropical forests. She went on to highlight that “the GCF-TF has increased its inclusivity and its focus on real success stories involving science and traditional knowledge. To see the level of engagement and joint efforts by states and provinces with foundations, donor countries and, most importantly, indigenous communities, this gives me great hope for the future and our ability to really address the climate crisis.”

By Monica Evans, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.

For more information on this topic, please contact Amy Duchelle at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

This research was supported by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB); and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).

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  • Can REDD+ help Brazil roll back rising deforestation rates?

Can REDD+ help Brazil roll back rising deforestation rates?

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A site of deforestation is seen from the air in Brazil. Photo by CIFOR

In Brazil, the role of REDD+ in stemming deforestation since 2004 is unclear — as is its potential for reversing the recent upward trend.

Land-use change represents more than 60 percent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the Amazon accounts for 65.2 percent of that amount, according to government figures, although those numbers are sometimes contested. Much of the deforestation in the country stems from the promotion of private enterprises, particularly ranching, timber and mining.

Since the 1980s, Brazil has taken steps to reduce deforestation, with the greatest success occurring between 2004 and 2016, when the rate decreased by 71 percent. Some of those measures involved actions for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).

Whether that improvement will be sustainable in the long run is unclear, however, as there was a recent sharp increase in deforestation rates.

A new Brazil country profile, produced as part of a Global Comparative Study of REDD+ led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), examines the drivers of deforestation in Brazil and efforts to solve the problem.

This third edition provides a fully updated overview of conditions affecting environmental policy for REDD+ in the Brazilian Amazon through 2015, when Brazil submitted its National REDD+ Strategy (ENREDD+) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

How did Brazil slow deforestation?

Reducing deforestation became a Brazilian government priority even before international climate agreements incorporated REDD+ schemes for reducing GHG emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation. International scrutiny, combined with pressure from Amazonian rubber tappers who make their living from the forest, led successive governments to tackle the problem, albeit with limited success.

In 2003, Brazil submitted a proposal for “compensated reduction” under the UNFCCC, calling for compensation by developed countries for less-developed countries that reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to land-use change in tropical forests and promote sustainable land management.

Over the next dozen years, a combination of incentives and disincentives to keep the forest standing and more effective law enforcement through command and control measures led to a dramatic drop in deforestation, especially in the “deforestation arc” around the southern and southeastern edge of the Amazon.

An aerial view of the Amazon rainforest is seen near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, Brazil. Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT for CIFOR

In 2015, Brazil officially submitted its National REDD+ Strategy to the UNFCCC. By then, many REDD+ pilot initiatives and related policies had already been implemented.

There are several clear reasons for Brazil’s success in decreasing deforestation.

First, the country’s sophisticated monitoring system provides real-time information about land use change to Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). This has reinforced command and control measures on the ground.

Meanwhile, reduction of deforestation became policy with the Action Plan to Prevent and Control Deforestation in the Amazon (PPCDAm), whose implementation began in 2004. The designation of several protected areas between 2002 and 2010, alongside new policies in 2007 and 2008 that targeted a “federal blacklist” of municipalities with critical deforestation rates, were crucial in reducing unprecedented levels of deforestation.

Finally, a series of demand-side measures (including multi-stakeholder round tables, zero-deforestation agreements and trade embargoes) began playing a key role in slowing deforestation.

Read also: Managing degraded forests, a new priority in the Brazilian Amazon

Deforestation on the rise again

But the problem is reemerging. Current deforestation rates in the Amazon are the highest in the past four years.

Between August 2014 and July 2015, Brazil clear-cut 6,207 square kilometers, a 24 percent increase over the previous period. Amid turbulent political events, national policy is now moving in the opposite direction, including several new constitutional amendments that threaten forests and the environment.

The Forest Law passed in 2012 granted amnesty to landowners who deforested illegally before 2008. Meanwhile, a measure requiring farmers to register rural properties and restore or provide compensation for illegally-deforested areas has been delayed twice.

Proposed Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 215 would require Congress to approve the demarcation of indigenous lands, while Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 65 would facilitate licensing of major infrastructure projects without adequate evaluation and mitigation of environmental impacts. That is of particular concern, because of proposals to build 334 dams throughout the Amazon Basin.

More than one million square kilometers of the Brazilian Amazon have also been registered for mining, which would threaten forests.

Meanwhile, the number of conservation units in the Amazon has been reduced, leading to an increase in illegal occupation, while a lack of financial resources is hampering on-site monitoring of deforestation.

And much of the deforestation has shifted to the Cerrado, a tropical savanna ecosystem east of the Amazon, which is now under enormous pressure, but receives far less attention than the Amazon forest.

Until recently, the Cerrado was not considered in REDD+ programs or other policies for combating deforestation, and it remains to be seen whether new policies will successfully address the land-use-change challenges there.

REDD+ strategy still at an early stage 

Brazil’s National REDD+ Strategy, known as ENREDD+, is aimed at reducing illegal deforestation; conserving and restoring forest systems; and generating economic, social and environmental co-benefits.

The strategy calls for more monitoring and for convergence among policies (climate, forests and biodiversity) by 2020, as well as increased financing and benefit-sharing for REDD+ strategies.

ENREDD+ will be guided by the National Policy for Climate Change and the Forest Code. It identifies three sectoral plans as the primary channels for implementing REDD+: PPCDAm; the Action Plan to Prevent and Control Deforestation and Fire in the Brazilian Cerrado (PPCerrado); and the Plan for Low Carbon Agriculture (ABC).

The Amazon rainforest is pictured in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT for CIFOR

The strategy supplements these plans with cross-cutting measures, including a financial architecture for REDD+ and a set of safeguards designed to ensure that REDD+ actions do not inflict social or environmental harm.

It is not yet clear, however, what types of measures Brazil will concentrate on to implement REDD+, coordinate national and sub-national efforts, and guarantee that safeguards are in place. Detailed regulation of these issues was left to the National REDD+ Entity and its Thematic Consultation Chambers, which are still in the early stages of designing specific principles and procedures.

And evidence is still scant about the potential of sub-national initiatives to reduce deforestation, with little coordination demonstrated among the initiatives.

Read also: ‘Turning the onus of restoration into a bonus for farmers’ in Brazil

As a result, disagreements between federal and state government agencies and a lack of definition regarding financing, benefit-sharing and safeguards for local initiatives pose significant obstacles to implementation of ENREDD+.

There is an urgent need for stakeholders at all levels to join forces to ensure a more appropriate structure and strategy for the National REDD+ Entity and its Thematic Consultation Chambers and to clarify how ENREDD+ will be put into practice.

Policies must prevent backsliding

Although Brazil has reduced emissions in recent years, it is difficult to determine how much of this was due to REDD+ initiatives. Besides analyzing performance indicators for results at each phase of REDD+, this would require an assessment of co-benefits, such as improved forest governance and poverty reduction.

REDD+ was supposed to provide benefits that would overcome the limitations of “command and control” measures. Instead, however, the ENREDD+ is mainly based on government policies and previous national efforts to reduce deforestation, such as increasing monitoring and reinstating old practices of forest conservation.

It is difficult to imagine how much of the remaining “residual” deforestation can be curbed through increased command and control, especially considering the recent opening of the Brazilian beef market to the US and China.

In its REDD+ interventions, Brazil should strive for a clearer understanding of the fundamental processes and practices that drive deforestation, such as the growing extra-local and international demand for forest and agricultural commodities, subsidies from outside the forest sector that encourage the production of such commodities, and the multifaceted and evolving issues of the different actors that are the target of these incentives. ENREDD+ has yet to clarify the role of these actors, especially the private sector.

These tasks are crucial to ensure that Brazil does not turn back the clock on its battle against deforestation.

By Maria Fernanda Gebara, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.

For more information on this topic, please contact Maria Fernanda Gebara at, Peter May at or Maria Brockhaus at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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  • A world with trees but without the word 'forest' – a thought experiment

A world with trees but without the word ‘forest’ – a thought experiment

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A cacao field receives light shade from native forest trees. Photo by E Smith/ICRAF
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A landscape in Vietnam with small scale logging and various types of tree cover: is there forest in view? Photo by ICRAF

The recent paper China’s fight to halt tree cover loss carefully avoided the word ‘forest’ in its title. 

It challenged the various definitions of forest that may cause more confusion than necessary, and preferred the more objectively observable ‘tree cover’ term for discussing what types of changes are occurring in China and whether or not the investments made by the state are delivering the services society wants.

In the paper, CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) researchers showed that China’s forest cover gains remain highly dependent on definition.

This leads to a thought experiment – please give it a try for the next five minutes: Can we do without the word ‘forest’ and its derivatives (deforestation, reforestation, afforestation, agroforestry, agroforestation)?

Let’s try. No, not a world without trees, of course. It is hard to think of landscapes completely without perennial woody stemmed plants – although they may be short and sparse in harsh climates, belong to a wide range of plant families, including ferns, conifers, dicotyledons and grasses, restricted to the edges of fields, lining roads, isolated remnants of a formerly denser vegetation retained to provide shade, or planted to create a more pleasant environment around houses and in urban areas.

No, not a world without “old growth”, “young growth”, “jungle rubber”, “home gardens”, “timber plantation”, “tree crops”, “line plantings” and vegetation derived from “old growth” by various degrees of logging and currently recovering.

Not a world, however, where we lump part of these land covers, and exclude others from a black-versus-white terminology, without words for the greys in between.

It could be a world where all land covers without or with trees are described by terms that are precise and clear. The amount, type, age and size of trees and other flora and fauna that shape land cover are directly related to its ‘use’, the ecosystem services and benefits provided to humans (and to those who attribute a right to non-human inhabitants of this planet).

Read also: New look at satellite data quantifies scale of China’s afforestation success

Trees produce wood of a wide range of qualities and utilities, fruits, resins, nectar for honeybees, medicinals and other tradable goods. Trees interact with water in the full hydrological cycle of atmospheric moisture, clouds, rainfall, runoff, groundwater recharge and regulated river flow.

Trees have major influence on micro- and meso-climates, and some role in the global carbon balance (no there is no shortage of atmospheric oxygen, so they don’t solve problems here). Trees represent a pretty good cross section of plant families, and support a huge diversity of beetles, other insects, birds and beasts.

A cacao field receives light shade from native forest trees. Photo by E Smith/ICRAF

Some forms of tree cover are better in some of these functions, others in other. It is not easy to draw a single line in deciding on a dichotomous two-stage land cover classification. It makes more sense to have many more categories, be clear on what tree functions are needed where and take measures to promote these.

Is it hard to describe all this without using the f-word? It does take some effort, but it may be liberating after the initial shock. Our data show that rates of change (‘deforestation’) in the landscapes where we work strongly depend on the operational forest definition, making the term as such meaningless.

Currently fashionable claims to ‘deforestation-free’ value chains have no substance in the absence of clarity of the basic terms used.

All well and good, but who should control and regulate the land where trees are supposed to grow and thrive? Don’t we need foresters, forest policy, forestry laws, forestry departments, forestry science, a global forest agreement, forest accounting rules and forest law enforcement? Depending on the specific type of tree cover and the primary functions to society, the answer to these questions will differ.

We certainly need land use laws and policies, land governance agencies, land use and landscape science, and clarity in how all land cover types can contribute to various parts of the Sustainable Development Goals agenda. But maybe, the agriculture vs forest dichotomy on which current concepts are built is actually not helpful, and we better go to the next level of distinctions between the various types and function of partial and complete tree cover in our landscapes.

FTA was explicitly set up to deal with the whole continuum of land cover and land use types, without prejudice to any specific interpretation of what it and what is not included in ‘forest’ or ‘agroforestry’ as separate categories. Indeed, the trees are bridging a wide spectrum of land uses.

By Meine van Noordwijk, FTA senior scientist, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World. 

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

We would like to thank all donors who supported this work through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

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  • New look at satellite data quantifies scale of China's afforestation success

New look at satellite data quantifies scale of China’s afforestation success

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Tree planting in Xinjiang, a dry province in China’s west. Photo by Jianchu Xu/ICRAF
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Tree planting has been carried out in Xinjiang, a dry province in China’s west. Photo by Jianchu Xu/ICRAF

China has invested more resources than any other country in reversing deforestation and planting trees. However, given the large scale of these programs it has been difficult to quantify their impact on forest cover.

A new FTA-related study shows that much of China’s new tree cover consists of sparse, low plantations as opposed to large areas of dense, high tree cover. The results of the study could help policymakers track returns from tree-planting investment and identify suitable environments for future afforestation, aiding efforts to sequester carbon, prevent soil degradation and enhance biodiversity.

China’s forest cover gains are dependent on definition, according to the study, which included FTA scientists.

Since devastating floods in 1998 highlighted the dangers of deforestation, China has enacted strict bans on logging in primary forests, a massive expansion of forest reserves, and multibillion-dollar afforestation programs.

“This approach has undoubtedly had a major impact on reducing loss of trees in China,” said Antje Ahrends of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), and lead author of the study. “China has spent more than US$100 billion on planting trees over the last decade alone. However, despite the many successes of this program, planting trees is not the same as gaining forests.”

Special purpose shrub and tree planting in China’s western deserts involves saxaul, Chinese tamarisk and Calligonum arborescent. Photo by Jianchu Xu/ICRAF

In China’s fight to halt tree cover loss, Ahrends and her colleagues analyzed high-resolution maps derived from satellite data using different definitions of “forest”. Under the broadest definition, that used by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), China gained 434,000 km² of forest cover between 2000 and 2010 – larger than the areas of Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg combined.

However, this definition includes scattered, immature or stunted plantations often consisting of a single species or even single clones, which are unlikely to provide the same benefits as large areas of dense and tall forest. The recently published paper was co-authored by a team from organisations including RBGE, KIB and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

“We wanted to see how this picture would change if we specifically looked for large areas of tall, relatively dense tree cover” said co-author and FTA scientist Xu Jianchu of ICRAF and KIB. “Understanding the type of cover established by afforestation programmes is critical to understanding the impacts of these projects on soil health, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.”

The results were dramatically different: under the stricter definition, China’s forests expanded by less than a tenth of the previous estimates – 33,000 km², an area smaller than the size of The Netherlands.

The study also noted the practical challenges facing tree planting programmes in China: the country has to feed one-fifth of the global population on less than one-tenth of the world’s agriculturally suitable land, and its growing economy means land suitable for growing trees is increasingly in demand for food production, construction and industrial use.

“Our analysis illustrates the importance of both definitions and large-scale monitoring for understanding changes in tree cover,” said co-author Peter Hollingsworth of RBGE. “It provides enhanced understanding of where tree planting programmes are most successful, and whether those programs are leading to dense forests or sparsely spaced shrubs.”

The report also looks at global trends: the researchers found that roughly half of the world’s forest cover has been lost over the past 10,000 years, and that tree cover is being lost in low-income countries at a rate of around 25,000 km² per year. However, the researchers also found evidence that many countries which have in the past lost much of their forests may be shifting to protect their remaining tree cover.

By Andrew Stevenson, originally published by the World Agroforestry Centre. Edited by Hannah Maddison-Harris.

This research is supported by the Key Research Program of Frontier Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (grant no. QYZDY-SSW-SMC014). Funding was also provided by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS).

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. We would like to thank all donors who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

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  • FTA scientists show China's forest cover gains are dependent on definition

FTA scientists show China’s forest cover gains are dependent on definition

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Rice fields and forest plantations integrated in the landscape provide food and timber resources while regulating water provision to an ancient agricultural irrigation system. In the background are karst mountain formations typical of the landscape in Guizhou and Guangxi provinces in Southwest China. Photo by Louis Putzel/CIFOR
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Rice fields and forest plantations integrated in the landscape provide food and timber resources while regulating water provision. In the background are karst mountain formations typical of Guizhou and Guangxi provinces in Southwest China. Photo by Louis Putzel/CIFOR

Home to one-fifth of the global population, China is seeing “great pressures on natural resources, including forests,” according to a recently published FTA-related study, China’s fight to halt tree cover loss.

The country is making concerted afforestation efforts and working hard to reverse the trend of tree cover losses, says the study, which analyzed reforestation in China.

China’s forestry expenditure per hectare is over three times higher than the global average, the study noted, and the country has invested over US$100 billion into six key forestry programs in the past decade.

Despite this, the research showed that China’s forest cover gains are highly dependent on definition; one has to look at how the term ‘forest’ is used in order to quantify them.

Read also: New look at satellite data quantifies scale of China’s afforestation success 

The issue of forest definitions has fundamental implications on the way afforestation and deforestation numbers are reported, can be compared and may be appropriately understood by all, as discussed in a recent blog post, One number to rule them all, by Peter Holmgren.

The recent research paper carefully avoided using the term forest in its title, said FTA scientist Meine van Noordwijk, who was not involved in the research.

Afforestation of agricultural land is seen in Dongquan County, Yunnan Province, China, with Xinjiang barley growing in the foreground. Photo by Louis Putzel/CIFOR

“It challenged the various definitions of forest that may cause more confusion than necessary, and preferred the more objectively observable ‘tree cover’ term for discussing what types of changes are occurring in China and whether or not the investments made by the state are delivering the services society wants,” he explained.

“The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry was explicitly set up to deal with the whole continuum of land cover and land use types, without prejudice to any specific interpretation of what is and what is not included in ‘forest’ or ‘agroforestry’ as separate categories. Indeed, the trees are bridging a wide spectrum of land uses,” Van Noordwijk added.

The New York Times, in a recent article on the research, questioned whether “official estimates of China’s greening campaign overstated its successes,” by mistaking shrubs for forests.

Van Noordwijk was quoted in the article as saying that the findings “point to major gaps between the way the concept of forest is defined in the various international conventions, versus how the general public understands it.”

His comments shed light on the matter by offering more ways to understand the determinants of this complex debate surrounding the methods and definitions used for measuring forests.

Read also:

By Hannah Maddison-Harris, FTA Communications and Editorial Coordinator.

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  • China's fight to halt tree cover loss

China’s fight to halt tree cover loss

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Authors: Antje Ahrends, Peter M. Hollingsworth, Philip Beckschäfer, Huafang Chen, Robert J. Zomer, Lubiao Zhang, Mingcheng Wang, Jianchu Xu


China is investing immense resources for planting trees, totalling more than US$ 100 billion in the past decade alone. Every year, China reports more afforestation than the rest of the world combined. Here, we show that China’s forest cover gains are highly definition-dependent. If the definition of ‘forest’ follows FAO criteria (including immature and temporarily unstocked areas), China has gained 434 000 km2 between 2000 and 2010. However, remotely detectable gains of vegetation that non-specialists would view as forest (tree cover higher than 5 m and minimum 50% crown cover) are an order of magnitude less (33 000 km2). Using high-resolution maps and environmental modelling, we estimate that approximately 50% of the world’s forest with minimum 50% crown cover has been lost in the past approximately 10 000 years. China historically lost 1.9–2.7 million km2 (59–67%), and substantial losses continue. At the same time, most of China’s afforestation investment targets environments that our model classes as unsuitable for trees. Here, gains detectable via satellite imagery are limited. Conversely, the regions where modest gains are detected are environmentally suitable but have received little afforestation investment due to conflicting land-use demands for agriculture and urbanization. This highlights the need for refined forest monitoring, and greater consideration of environmental suitability in afforestation programmes.

Publication year: 2017

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  • Coastal blue carbon from planted mangroves holds promise

Coastal blue carbon from planted mangroves holds promise

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FTA communications

Photo: Vien Ngoc Nam/CIFOR
An international team of scientists have unearthed surprising results from the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve. Vien Ngoc Nam / CIFOR.

By Fidelis E. Satriastanti, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

Mangrove forests might account for only 0.5 percent of coastal areas worldwide, but they punch well above their weight when it comes to mitigating climate change. A recent study in Vietnam found this is true even for artificially restored mangroves.

The study assessed carbon storage in restored mangrove sites. It was a collaborative work between Nong Lam University (Vien Ngoc Nam) as host, the Center for International Forestry Research or CIFOR (Daniel Murdiyarso, Joko Purbopuspito, and Sigit Sasmito), and US Forest Service (Richard MacKenzie).

“Vietnam was a natural choice for the study: it’s home to the largest mangrove areas in the Mekong Delta, and many of its mangroves have been replanted after being heavily degraded during the Vietnam War,” said Sigit Sasmito, a researcher at CIFOR.

The study was conducted on a total of nine plots in the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve (CGMBR) and Kien Vang Protection Forest (KVPF).

The researchers compared vegetation structure, biodiversity and carbon storage in two types of restoration sites: planted mangroves in the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve and naturally regenerated ones in the Kien Vang Protection Forest.

Located near Ho Chi Minh City, Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve contains 31,000 hectares of planted mangrove. During the Vietnam War (1964–1970), the reserve was sprayed with toxic chemicals, which destroyed or severely damaged 57 percent of its mangrove forests.

In 1978, the Vietnamese government launched a reforestation program in the area. At least 20,000 hectares of mangrove forests in the area were planted with 35 mangrove species between 1978 and 1998.

Kien Vang Protection Forest, located in Ca Mau province, spans 11,274 hectares, of which 8,404 hectares have been designated as a mangrove protection area. It also experienced massive degradation throughout the war. Its forests regenerated naturally, without any human intervention.


“Our findings imply that different restoration approaches, either artificial or natural regeneration, do not affect the capacity of mangroves to sequester carbon,” said Sasmito.

The study found that planted mangroves in the Can Gio reserve had 889 ±111 tons of carbon per hectare, very close to the naturally regenerated forests of KVPF, which had a total of 844 ±58 tons of carbon per hectare.

“The findings surprised us because we hypothesized that different mangrove restoration approaches would result in different carbon sequestration capacities,” said Sasmito.

Future projections in the study came to a similar conclusion: after 35 years, planted and naturally regenerated mangrove forests will have similar levels of carbon.

Sasmito points out that this research supports the current push to restore mangroves worldwide, by giving evidence that mangrove restoration can enhance climate change mitigation through carbon storage .

A recent CIFOR study found that Indonesia’s 2.9 million hectares of mangroves store some 3.14 billion tonnes of carbon – a huge emissions reduction, if mangrove forests are preserved.

“Our research supports previous finding that mangrove ecosystems store significant amount of carbon – up to 5 times more than tropical forests,” said Sasmito.

“This is significant for global climate change mitigation strategies,” he added.

“Mangroves with two more other coastal wetland ecosystems, namely sea grass and salt marsh, are referred to as ‘blue carbon’,” explained Sasmito.

In terms of biodiversity, the study found that the replanted mangrove plots had considerably higher mangrove species diversity, with 15 true mangrove species compared to only 12 species in the naturally regenerated areas.

“This is because artificially regenerated mangrove site is given more frequent new species introduction compare to naturally regenerated site, which species introduction is part of mangrove management and monitoring intervention,” Sasmito explained.

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
This research was supported by USAID.

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  • Regreening Ethiopia

Regreening Ethiopia

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Ethiopia – Forest landscape restoration (FLR) is the ongoing process of regaining ecological functionality and enhancing human well-being across deforested or degraded areas.

CIFOR’s FLR research work is funded by the International Forestry Knowledge (KNOWFOR) Program. KNOWFOR aims to provide policymakers and practitioners in developing countries with useful evidence, tools and analysis on forests, trees and climate change.

KNOWFOR’s ongoing work will be presented at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, held from 1-10 September in Hawai’i, USA.



Q&A: Lessons from China for forest landscape restoration

This topic will be featured by
CIFOR at IUCN World Conservation Congress
1-10 September 2016 | Honolulu – Hawai’i, USA
See event details here

See the rest of the story at

Q&A: Lessons from China for forest landscape restoration
VIDEO: Laporan dari Pasifik: ‘Perubahan iklim itu nyata’
VIDEO: Restorasi hutan hujan di Asia Pasifik

Source: Forests News English

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  • Second-growth forests: a boon for land restoration and climate change mitigation

Second-growth forests: a boon for land restoration and climate change mitigation

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By Madelon Lohbeck, originally posted at the Landscape Portal

Secondary forest in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Madelon Lohbeck
Secondary forest in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Madelon Lohbeck

The Bonn challenge aims to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 of which currently almost 100 million hectares has been committed through various initiatives. Restoration is a global priority; not only to restore the productivity of degraded and unproductive land, but also because promoting tree cover will increase carbon uptake from the air into vegetation biomass and soil, contributing to climate change mitigation. The land area designated for restoration is huge and shows global commitment for the cause. But how does one go about restoring such vast areas, and, isn’t that very expensive?

As part of an international group of researchers, called 2ndFOR, we recently stressed the vital role of second-growth forest for land restoration and climate change mitigation. Second-growth forests are forests that regrow after nearly complete removal of forest cover for agricultural use. Second-growth forest has previously been put forward as a potential carbon sink but their potential for carbon sequestration has never been quantified at large scale. It turns out that these forests may teach us how to restore the land and take up vast amounts of carbon while working with nature, instead of against it. Our results were recently published in the prestigious journals Nature and Science Advances.

Researchers are convinced of the potential of so called second-growth forests in mitigating the effects of climate change. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT
Researchers are convinced of the potential of so-called second-growth forests in mitigating the effects of climate change. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT

We reported on the enormous grow-back potential of tropical forests in Nature. From the analysis on 1500 forest plots from 45 sites across Latin America we concluded that carbon uptake is surprisingly fast in these second-growth forests: After 20 years, these forests had recovered 122 tons of aboveground biomass per hectare. This corresponds to an uptake of 3.05 tons of carbon per ha per year, which is 11 times the uptake rate of old-growth forests.We also found that the rate of regrowth differed dramatically across the study sites and that this rate is larger in areas with higher rainfall. A map is provided of the grow-back potential of second-growth forests across the Latin American tropics.

Biomass resilience map of the Latin American tropics showing the predicted aboveground forest biomass (AGB) attained 20 years after abandonment of agricultural use. Picture credits: Nature Publishing Group.

In Science Advances we reported what this regrowth potential implies for climate change mitigation. The area of second-growth forests in Latin America is substantial: 240 million ha, which is 28% of the lowland forest area. Assuming that 100% of this second-growth forest is able to persist and grow over the coming 40 years, there will be an additional 31.1 petagrams of CO2 stored over that time period, which is enough of offset the carbon emissions from fossil fuel use and industrial processes in these countries in the past 21 years. What is remarkable is that this huge amount of carbon uptake does not require any costly tree planting or loss of farmlands. This is exclusively based on natural forest regrowth and only requires protection of the second-growth forests present.

So, working with nature provides us with a low-cost and effective solution for restoring large areas of land and mitigating climate change. To do so, second-growth forests should be left to regrow, which only works if there is some form of protection (e.g. fencing, fire-breaks). Forest regrowth is not a quick fix, it takes many decades and the carbon benefits accumulate over long time scales. At the same time, adequately protecting mature forests is vital for climate change mitigation. Mature forests do not take up carbon as fast as second-growth forest but they have large amounts of carbon stored in both biomass and soils. If mature forests are not adequately protected, carbon-uptake gains by second-growth forest may be in vain.

As the world looks for efficient and affordable ways to restore degraded land and combat climate change these findings tell us that forest regrowth clearly deserves more attention among (inter)national policy makers than it has received so far. Rather than working against nature we should work with nature; natural regrowth is a cheap and nature-based solution with a tremendous carbon mitigation potential.

Madelon Lohbeck is a scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Her work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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