Putting a positive spin on forests

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Jan McAlpine is the Director of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) which addresses all aspects of forests – from complete protection on one end of the spectrum to sustainable use one the other end, and everything in-between, including people, climate change, soils, water and biodiversity. Here she talks about the positive relationship between forests and the people who depend on them, and expectations following the launch of the International Year of Forests.  

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The relationship between humans and the forest is much more positive than has been portrayed in the past.

Since Rio, the focus on forests has been overwhelmingly negative: unacceptable rates of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and desertification when, in fact, there are much better stories to tell about forests.

The theme of this International Year is “Celebrating Forests and People” so we have a much more positive message about the integration of people, indigenous peoples, communities and forests.

In the past people seemed to only understand forests in terms of exploitation for timber resources. The story is much more complex than that and in many countries around the world, the relationship between forests and people is a positive one.

A number of the International Forest Film Festival winners show this in an amazing way. For example, the movie “The Man Who Stopped the Desert” is about this tremendous man in Burkina Faso who single-handedly changed the whole idea of being able to recapture large expanses of land from, what people previously thought were completely dead areas.

There was also John D. Lui’s film, “Hope in a Changing Climate,” which showed the metamorphosis of a huge area in China: from dry, barren gullies into a natural landscape and agriculturally productive areas. It’s just an amazing story.

There are lots of positive stories. It seems like bad stories get more attention, but we also want the public around the world to understand just how essential people are to forests and forests are to people.

We’ve started to realise that it is possible to make large landscape changes. The Rwanda initiative, for example, shows the potential of a policy change on a massive scale—the entire country—to turn around a situation not only for forests, which are important, but for wetlands, for agricultural productivity, and for subsistence farmers. With 10 million people in 26,000 square kilometers, you immediately understand that it could have conflict written all over it. And conflict and natural resources is an old story that people have not well understood.

Pushing developing countries with little income and huge poverty levels to conserve their forests and the biodiversity that lives in them is naïve. We have to take a broader and different approach. Conservation protection is possible, but only if we address broader issues such as agricultural productivity, food security, and the role of wetlands.

If you take for example, Brazil, compared to 20 years ago, it is now a totally different nation and this can be attributed to their emphasis on indigenous peoples and communities and their relationship with forests—and paying attention to those issues as part of the overall approach.

But we still tend to address forests and other natural resources in a siloed fashion. And if anything, we’re hoping for Rio+20 that we start to look at these cross-sectoral, cross-institutional issues. And the Forum is in a great position to advocate that because in sustainable forest management it does take on board all aspects—I call it 360-degrees on forests.

This year, UNFF is providing a global platform for celebrating the International Year of Forests. But we’re not the implementers of the Year. The implementers are around the world and they’re the countries, organisations, and local groups who are making the changes in their communities.

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