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Forests produce green growth

Yolanda Kakabadse

President, WWF International

"What will the Green Economy look like?" is a hot topic among bean counters and tree huggers alike.

There is a growing awareness that the prevailing economic model isn't delivering. It's not delivering for the roughly 3 billion people worldwide who live on the equivalent of US$2 a day or less. It's not delivering for species: WWF's Living Planet Index shows a decrease in biodiversity by 30 per cent since 1970. And it is not working for forests, which are being lost at a rate of some 13 million hectares a year.

So, if it isn't working for all these people, animals and natural resources, how much longer will it continue to work for the lucky and relatively few whose lifestyles are the least sustainable?

The answer is: not long at all. WWF's Living Planet Report shows that wealthy nations continue to depend on resources from other countries, contributing to an alarming rate of biodiversity loss in low-income ones. Indeed, the poorest and most vulnerable nations are subsidizing wealthy lifestyles. In all, humanity is using the resources of 1.5 planets. You don't have to be an economist to know that such an overdraft will come painfully due.

That's why the concept of a Green Economy is so exciting. Finally, CEOs and heads of state, conservationists and community leaders are laying the foundation for a system that creates well-being, not just wealth.

Forests are crucial because their products and ecosystem services touch all sectors of the economy. Their perilous state can be correlated to the flaws in our current economic model: poor governance, corporate greed, disenfranchisement of the poor. A Green Economic model would correct these through new incentives and new measures of progress.

Indonesia provides an interesting example of how these shifts might play out. It has made public commitments to 7 per cent GDP growth and up to 41 per cent (with international support) carbon emission reductions by 2020. This ambitious "7-41" aspiration can only be achieved through responsible management of forests and sustainable land-use planning. With more than half of Indonesian emissions coming from deforestation and forest degradation - and 15 per cent of GDP from forestry and agriculture - realigning the forest system is essential.

We are squandering forests. It's easier to cut into pristine natural forest than it is to untangle the red tape around already deforested land. But resolving tenure and land-use rights for this degraded land - of which there are an estimated 30 million hectares in Indonesia - would significantly enhance the prospect of developing it for new oil palm and timber plantations. Such policy reforms - alongside incentives created by a market that is increasingly discerning about the carbon footprint of products and willing to reward emission reduction - will create an environmental and economic win-win.

For their part, many businesses have already realized that their bottom line depends on healthy forests, and have endorsed voluntary standards like the Forest Stewardship Council and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. In the short term, these standards can mitigate the losses caused by poor forest management. (Just as a responsible person doesn't become a thief just because the shop owner isn't looking, responsible businesses don't take advantage of poor governance to turn a profit.) In the long term, such public/private-sector groups lead to better policies that apply to all companies.

Traditional conservation values - the product of generations of reliance on the bounty of forests, rivers and seas - can be recognized and properly rewarded in Indonesia. REDD+, with strong social safeguards, could be a significant step forward in preventing runaway climate change and reducing the burden of poverty.

Even as we work to scale up REDD+, there are sparks of progress that demonstrate how indigenous communities can reap the rewards of their environmental stewardship in a new, Green Economy. Take Long Pahangai in Borneo's East Kalimantan. Its Dayak people live much as their ancestors did, with close ties to the land. "We still have good forests because people know their lives depend on them. When we want to eat, we come to the river or to the forest," says Iskander Idris, Secretary of the village.

And Long Pahangai's conservation may have other benefits. The intact forests have protected the whole watershed, including a tributary that flows near the village on its way to the Mahakam River, which will generate hydropower to bring electricity to the village. Establishing such micro-hydro is one way WWF and partners are trying to make conservation pay dividends for rural communities. 1.4 billion people globally have no access to reliable electricity and this affects their health, education, earning potential and ability to participate fully in society.

"This project is a partnership between the provincial government, the local government, the community and WWF," says Data Kusuma, WWF's project leader. "Originally, the provincial government proposed installing the micro-hydro turbine in another community. But WWF showed them that the forest was too degraded - the river had become silted and didn't even run all year. That community would be very disappointed to have a system that didn't work properly.

"In Long Pahangai, the river can support the micro-hydro turbine and this can be a model for other communities; if they rehabilitate and reforest their catchment areas, micro-hydro could work for them, too."

Tigang Himang, the Head of the sub-district, adds, "The villages in this sub-district depend on nature and live in harmony with their environment. But we need economic development, too. Here, everything is done by human power. With electricity, we can be more productive and benefit from technology."

We might yet not have definitive understanding of what makes a "Green Economy", but that must be a good start.

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