The world’s forests are frequently described as the lungs of the planet, but a more correct metaphor would be to refer to them as the Earth’s lungs and heart. Their function to produce oxygen and filter air is well documented, but we are only beginning to fully understand the importance of the Amazon and Congo Basins and other large forest ecosystems for generating and distributing rainfall across countries and entire continents.
Forests cover about one third of all land, and provide a multitude of local and global ecosystem services that we take for granted – services to society that are fast dwindling. The loss of forests has increased dramatically in the past century, and while the rate of deforestation in the tropics is showing signs of easing off, it is still alarmingly high, with about a football pitch-sized area of forests disappearing somewhere on the planet every three seconds. Every year, the area of forest cover we lose is equivalent to a country the size of Greece or Nicaragua.
However, somewhat hidden from the limelight and eclipsed by the well-publicized crisis of tropical deforestation, a global effort is underway that could stabilize the world’s climate and save much of its biodiversity, while providing benefits to millions of the world’s poorest citizens. This effort goes by the somewhat dry name of forest landscape restoration. The aim of forest landscape restoration is to boost the biodiversity, productivity and resilience of landscapes through agro-forestry, afforestation/reforestation, and through natural or assisted regeneration of habitats.
Some high-profile success stories have emerged, and restoration efforts are quickly gaining momentum across developing countries. One success story is the resurgence of the Shinyanga region in Tanzania. It took less than twenty years to return from the near-collapse of its Acacia and Miombo woodlands. Now the restoration of 300,000 hectares of woodland and the establishment of 1.5 million hectares of agro-forestry is providing all-time high and stable levels of income for over one million villagers..
In Côte d’Ivoire, civil war has wreaked havoc over two decades and most natural forests have disappeared, but the Government is now starting to restore productive landscapes for a once-more booming cocoa sector. And Brazil has embarked on a massive effort to restore 15 million hectares of the Mata Atlantica, the once lush Atlantic Forest of which less than 7 per cent remains today. And in a visionary program, Rwanda has now made border-to-border forest landscape restoration plans and is putting them into action.
Restoring functional landscapes on a grand scale has helped the world to avert humanitarian and economic crises before: in the 17th and 18th century, much of Germany and Central Europe was so degraded by deforestation and overgrazing that droughts and crop failures regularly resulted in mass migration. Only a concerted Government intervention and investment in reforestation and education on forest management could break the vicious circle. In the United States in the 1920s, the ecological collapse of the fragile Prairie soils triggered the ‘Great Dust Bowl’ of dust storms and massive soil erosion, which forced an estimated 3.5 million people to leave the Great Plains and head for greener pastures, mostly in California. As an emergency response, President Roosevelt put in place soil conservation measures, and ordered the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant more than 200 million trees from Canada to Texas to stop wind erosion, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place.
The world today needs a similar kind of emergency response to climate change, for the benefit of people fleeing from environmental degradation and decreasing soil fertility into ever-growing megacities. Despite its dry name, forest landscape restoration is a solution that is finding more and more followers. At the Secretary-General’s Climate Summit on 23 September in New York, several countries are expected to make additional pledges to the ‘Bonn Challenge’ of restoring 150 million hectares of degraded forest landscapes by 2020. If this target is reached, the restored land could absorb an additional 1 Gigaton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, and in the process also generate over 80 billion USD annually in ecosystem services and cash income to many of the world’s rural poor.
In a new agreement, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the three United Nations agencies (UNEP, FAO and UNDP) that form the UN-REDD Programme are pledging to scale up forest landscape restoration by making the knowledge and experience gained over the past 10 years available to the 55 UN-REDD partner countries. Based on a global map showing restoration potential, more and more countries are realizing the untapped potential that lies in restoring forest landscapes. Investments into ecosystem restoration pay the triple dividend of climate change mitigation, food and water security, and sustainable rural development. The momentum for a planetary restoration effort is growing, and that is good news, because we cannot wait for our global ‘Dust Bowl’ moment – the time to act is now.
Tim Christophersen leads the work on forests and climate change at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He is a member of the Management Group of the UN-REDD Programme, which supports 55 developing countries in Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+).