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Overused, undervalued

Frances Seymour
Director-General, Center for International Forestry Research

This should be a banner year for the world's forests. 2011, the United Nation's International Year of Forests, was preceded by the auspicious agreement on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) at December's UNFCCC's COP16 in Cancun, launching a long-sought mechanism to integrate forests into the global climate protection regime.

The world's forests should also be well positioned to take advantage of the need to shift to a "green economy". We have long known that the economic value of forests extends far beyond the timber that they produce.

Biological diversity, non-timber forest products, sources of ecosystem services, and spiritual solace can all be found in them. And now as never before, they are appreciated for their contributions to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Yet many of these values remain invisible to policy-makers and to the general public, especially when compared to quick profits from such alternative land-uses as commercial agriculture and mining. Forests' hold on public and political imagination will be tenuous as long as the economic contributions of keeping them standing remain hidden or undervalued. And bringing these contributions to light often requires changes in governance and markets. Researchers have long suspected that communities in and around forests derive much of their incomes from the direct consumption and sale of forest products. A new database representing the results of income surveys from more than 8,000 households (www.cifor.cgiar. org/pen), confirms that hunch: on average, 24 percent of their total income comes from forest products. Wood for fuel and construction, bushmeat, fruits, nuts, honey, and mushrooms for food - and a wide variety of products used for medicines, handicrafts, ornamentation, and other uses - all contribute.

Unfortunately, very little of that income is captured in national statistical surveys or accounts, and so it remains invisible to national policy-makers. Survey instruments used by national statistical offices need to be refined to illuminate the important contribution that forests make to the incomes of some of the world's most poor and vulnerable communities.

Another reason for this invisibility is that much of the income is at least technically illegal - and a significant proportion is paid in bribes. When negotiations began several years ago on an agreement between the Government of Cameroon and the European Commission to ensure that timber exported to the European Union was legally sourced, it was assumed that timber produced informally for the domestic market was smaller than the formal sector share. Research conducted by CIFOR revealed that in fact this is about four times larger than previously thought, providing employment and income to some 45,000 people.

Crackdowns on illegal logging tend to target the little guys with the chainsaws rather than the big ones with the bank accounts. Everyone would be better off if timber produced informally for the domestic market were brought into an appropriate regulatory framework that safeguards both the environmental sustainability of the resource and the livelihoods of local producers. Professionalization rather than criminalization provides an alternative way forward.

Market-based mechanisms to protect forests have a role, but have not proven sufficient by themselves to reverse deforestation and degradation. Certification schemes - such by the Forestry Stewardship Council - recognize producers who take the right values into account in their practices. But industry leaders complain that most people appear not yet ready to pay a price premium reflecting the costs of protecting those values. Purchasing decisions that reflect concerns about the sustainability of the world's forests are driven more by the reputational sensitivities of retailers than by the preferences of ultimate consumers. More attention should be given to policy interventions to level the playing field for sustainable producers.

Logged-over "degraded" forests continue to be prime targets for conversion to other uses - despite the richness of carbon, biodiversity, and sources of local livelihood (such as bushmeat) they often contain. More informed and accountable spatial planning processes should target agricultural expansion to genuinely degraded areas, and recognize the rights of current resource users to the benefits both of existing uses and of those that may be created by REDD and other payments for ecosystems services (PES) schemes.

The potential of using such schemes - which depend on a clear "seller" of the environmental service in question - to save the forest is compromised by the lack of clarity and conflict over who owns it . CIFOR research has illuminated the extent of such barriers to operationalizing green economy tools in conditions typical of most tropical forests. It estimates that only about half of the forests in the Brazilian Amazon that would be economically viable for PES-type payments to reduce forest-based climate emissions are not compromised by such land tenure "chaos".

The fragility of support for protecting forests in the absence of hard evidence of their economic value is perhaps best illustrated by recent debates about how to achieve food security. These debates tend to characterize forests as a land-use option competing in a zero-sum game with agricultural expansion

- and not to highlight their important roles in contributing to food security, both in providing subsistence and cash income and in supporting sustainable agricultural productivity. Forest goods are a crucial component of rural livelihoods: 80 percent of wood harvested in Sub-Saharan Africa is for energy; bushmeat harvested from Congo Basin forests is equivalent to the production of the Brazilian beef industry. And forests' critical ecosystem services to agriculture - as in maintaining hydrological flows and pollination services - would be impossible or expensive to replace.

Even those who understand the need to maintain forests as part of integrated landscape management strategies often focus exclusively on increasing agricultural productivity as a way of taking pressure off them. Such productivity increases are certainly necessary, and desirable for other reasons, but are not in themselves sufficient to reduce this pressure. Indeed, research has shown that, depending on relative prices and markets, increasing agricultural productivity can actually create incentives to accelerate forest clearance. So these efforts must go hand-in-hand with reform of forest governance to align incentives for forest protection.

So as we mark this International Year of Forests, governments and other policy-makers must recognize the true value that forests hold for local communities, countries and the entire world. With 13 million hectares of them lost every year, the clock is ticking pretty fast.

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