Stewart Maginnis on Poverty and Forest Restoration

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There are currently over one billion hectares of degraded land across the globe with a great potential for investment in restoration.

Stewart Maginnis is the Head of the Forest Conservation Programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. He has a keen interest in the linkage between forest conservation and livelihood security of the rural poor, the practical application of ecosystem or landscapes approaches in forest management and on the role of civil society in local and national forest governance arrangements. We had a chat to him at the UN Forum on Forests in New York.

What’s the importance of International Year of the Forests 2011 (IYF)?

In one way, I’m skeptical of “International Years” of anything, but I think in saying that there really are possibilities. I think the International Year of Forests is opportune because we’ve seen forests come back on the agenda in a significant way. This gives us the real opportunity to put the spotlight on forests and capitalise on some of the progress that has already happened.

I think the other thing with IYF is that this is a good news story. There’s been so much hand-wringing and doom-saying on forests for so long. But I think we’re actually starting to see more positive things. If we can deploy [sustainable forest management] as an effective way to at least help stabilise concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases, it’s definitely not a solution, but it could play a fundamental role in the next decade.

How will this Year affect forest-dependent communities?

1.6 billion people depend on forests and have long been ignored by policymakers, and by the development community. Part of the reason they have been ignored is that is national statistical surveys—household surveys—only capture cash contributions, they don’t capture the non-cash contribution. That means laws and policies are put into place that actually exclude and preclude people with non-cash contributions from using forests. What we’ve shown is the non-cash outweighs the cash contribution by a factor of four.

However, forests are starting to get recognised for their role in poverty reduction and forest landscape restoration. Ten years ago, we were told by the development community and by governments that forests don’t really have a role in poverty reduction and that there was no real justification for donors to put their money into forests because they contribute so little to national economic growth. Those of us that had worked in the field for many years knew that this thinking was wrong, but we didn’t have the data.

Now we’ve identified that agricultural communities, even say a cocoa-producing community in southwest Ghana, will still rely on forest and forest resources for up to 35 percent of their household income which is a massive amount. CIFOR, through the Poverty Environment Network has had 25 scientists examining this issue and they are coming up with very similar figures to us.

Through our global analyses we’ve found that the contribution of forests directly to households through cash or non-cash income equates to the total official development assistance of all industrialised countries, that is about $130 billion a year going to poor, rural households. So this turns this argument on its head that forests aren’t important for poverty. They’re absolutely fundamentally important and there’s a lot more we can actually do.

What about restoring degraded forests?

Degraded forests, secondary forests have been completely invisible. People have seen intact forests or they’ve seen degraded land, but there are at least one billion hectares of degraded forestland and probably another half-billion hectares of degraded cropland that could benefit from significant restoration. So there’s lots of potential to restore and invest in restoration in order to preserve the resilience of rural livelihoods, to help with climate adaptation, and to support food security, and soil conservation.

We’re talking to several governments at the moment to see if we can think about creative ways of implementing target 15 of the Convention of Biological Diversity which aims to restore 15 percent of degraded ecosystems by 2020.

If we can get three or four more governments starting to work on this then we start to gain a little bit of traction. I think we’re at a really exciting point now where we can get that critical mass.

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  • An excellent and hopeful story.

  • David J. Robertson

    Mr. Maginnis’ comments about the value of forests for cash and non-cash income address the direct, quantitative value of forests. But, of course, forests have considerable additional value for soil stabilization, water management, air quality management, etc. that are more difficult to monetize. All one has to do is compare the economy of deforested Haiti with that of the more heavily forested Dominican Republic to see value of preserving woodlands.