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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Tree of Life – Beyond Carbon, More than Forests

Ibrahim Thiaw

13 Feb 2015

Through history and across civilizations, the Tree of Life — visualized with its great roots and spreading canopy, often laden with fruit and flowering — has its place in religion, mythology, philosophy and biology.  In all its manifestations – from the monotheist ‘Garden of Eden tree’ to Mexico’s Olmec ‘world tree’ to the Taoist traditions of China and the Kaballah ‘tree of keen intellectual abstraction’ – the Tree of Life is dense with symbolism.

It alludes to the interconnection of all life and serves as a metaphor for common descent, survival, and resilience.

In Indonesia, Tree of Life mythology dates back to 3000 BC , where in Sumatra, a creation myth tells of an ancient tree that grew from the under-world to the sky then shattered into pieces. As the fragments fell down to earth they formed the first rice paddies, buffalo and people.

But beyond symbolism, nothing speaks of the eternal bond between man and tree more than in Indonesia’s Roti island, where from cradle to grave the Lontar Palm, one of the planet’s most efficient sugar producing palms, is nothing less than a life line for the indigenous community.

The treasured juice from the palm, called tuak manis, is a baby’s first meal before mother’s milk. Two or three trees are enough to support a family — each tree can yield 200-400 liters of juice each year for up to 35 years. Everyday products —  mats, trays for winnowing rice, thatch, musical instruments, fans, umbrellas, belts, knife-sheaths, and even bags for transporting chickens to market— are made from palm. And when the old man dies, he’ll be buried in a coffin made from its wood.

Yet, it is sad to note that Indonesia, one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, has one of the highest rates of deforestation and forest degradation, driven largely by large and small-scale agriculture, and infrastructural developments such as road building.

The consequences of this reach far across time and physical scale. The clearance of peat lands, for instance, renders them susceptible to fire, a problem that is increasing in regularity and intensity for Indonesia with enormously significant consequences for greenhouse has emissions, public health and economic productivity.

While the situation in Indonesia’s forests is striking in sheer scale, similar processes are occurring across the world.

Every year, about 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed around the world, the equivalent of losing 25 football fields of trees every minute. This is due to rapidly expanding croplands, plantations and pastures, infrastructure development, destructive logging, and fires

In the case of Paraguay, one quarter of the forests have been cleared since 1990, mostly to grow soybeans and to provide pasture for the country’s livestock industry – two of its biggest economic engines.

In Nigeria, more than one half of the country’s forest cover has been lost since 1990, making way for not just the expansion of agriculture, but also for mining, oil and gas projects. Forests have also been degraded through the unsustainable production and consumption of fuel-wood; the primary source of fuel for about two-thirds of the country.

Environmental and Social Impacts

This destruction has long-term environmental and social impacts. It often separates indigenous people and communities from the forests that provide them with their livelihoods and deprives endangered species of their habitats on the ground, and even in the air. For example, forests provide habitat for more than three quarters of all globally threatened bird species.

Forests also provide food, medicine and other vital products to people, as well as important services, such as filtering fresh water as it collects and flows downstream, so that urban populations have clean water to drink. In fact, 33 of the world’s largest cities obtain their fresh water directly from protected expanses of forest. Globally, forests contribute to the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people worldwide. An ecosystems valuation project in Indonesia, supported by UNEP, is seeking to identify and highlight the economic value provided by forests to the rural poor- much of which, in terms of mainstream financial calculations and metrics, is invisible. In the pilot project in Central Kalimantan, it was calculated that villages situated within the forest depend typically upon ecosystem services for 77.41% of their total income.

Deforestation and forest degradation are also major – but often lesser known – contributors to global warming and account for a substantial proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions.

What Indonesia, Paraguay and Nigeria have in common is that they are looking at an international initiative, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), to help keep their remaining trees standing. REDD+ is an international effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from activities on forested lands and invest in more sustainable forest management practices.

Sustainability is the key to REDD+; countries are exploring how forests can be protected, and even restored, while still providing livelihoods and sustenance for the people who depend on them.

REDD+ helps to increase the value of trees in the eyes of national and local governments and other stakeholders in the private and public sectors. In mapping out where REDD+ actions could contribute to reducing poverty and inequality, and support the cultures of forest-dependent and indigenous peoples, REDD+ is empowering environment ministries, communities and others in land-use planning.

Beyond Carbon, More than Forests

Indonesia’s vision for REDD+ is described by the Government as ‘Beyond Carbon, More than Forests’.

It is linked- conceptually and practically- with broader commitments to a green economy transition. Forests must stay standing, but they must be managed in terms of sustainable landscapes which serve multiple functions. Timber, agriculture, settlements: these are essential elements of a developing economy, and the key is not to ban them but to manage lands in ways such that outcomes for economy, environment and society are balanced and mutually compatible.

Ecotourism is a growing segment of national and local economies in many tropical countries- globally, ecotourism is worth as much as $77bn annually, and it is the deep forests of the world that present a perhaps unrivalled richness in experience. Travellers visit Nigeria’s Cross River State not only to experience its rugged mountains and to look at the “charismatic megafauna” – the forest elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees – but also to seek out the more than 900 varieties of butterflies that live in the region’s tropical high forest.

Such diversity is rife across the islands of the Indonesian archipelago, where flagship species such as the Sumatran tiger and Borneo orangutan co-exist with endangered species of orchid and timber, and provide for the unique cultures of millions of indigenous peoples.

The implementation of REDD+ and the launch of markets for the carbon credits that underpin the new value of the world’s forests – and the green economies that prosper in these forests – will be a key topic during the build up to COP 21, taking place in December 2015 in Paris. The stakes are ever higher. Research is reaching an overwhelming consensus that failing to reach agreement- not just on REDD+, but on a comprehensive roadmap to mitigate and adapt to climate change- will endanger the wellbeing and lives of future generations.

The 56 countries involved in the UN-REDD Programme- including Indonesia, Paraguay and Nigeria- are looking at REDD+ to stop this trend, help people who depend on forests, and mitigate the climate change impacts that threaten us all. It is the duty of the rest of the world to support them in whatever way we can, so that we, as a global society, can finally safeguard our forests.

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