“Forests cannot be sustained if people are hungry”: future climate change negotiations likely to include agriculture

Until recently, most of these hills in the Burundian countryside were completely forested. Photo courtesy of Jane Boles/flickr.

DURBAN, South Africa (6 December, 2011)_Agriculture will most likely be included in future negotiations on global warming, experts said at the U.N. climate change talks in Durban, which may help address one of the top drivers of deforestation amid a spike in demand for farmland.

South Africa’s Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries Minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson “will be delivering a letter to COP17 negotiators”, said Rachel Kyte, Vice President of Sustainable Development at the World Bank at Forest Day 5, a side-event to the UN climate summit in its final week in Durban. She requested that negotiators approve “at a minimum, a decision to set up a work program on agriculture under SBSTA, without which, there should not be a deal”.  SBSTA is the scientific sub-committee of the UNFCCC.

The SBSTA draft text does mention the drivers of deforestation, said La Viña at Forest Day 5. The sub-committee has agreed to hold a broad agenda-setting discussion on agriculture at next year’s COP in Qatar, he said.

Forests around the world are under increasing pressure as the burgeoning global population, on track to hit 9 billion by 2050, demands more land for food production. Forests act as crucial safety nets for people struggling to avert famine in times of economic and climactic stress but this ability is being threatened by intense crop cultivation, high energy demand, soil erosion and nutrient depletion from agricultural practices.

Unsustainable land management practices have also contributed to creeping desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa, playing a major role in the famine now plaguing the horn of Africa and threatening the region’s remaining dry forests.

“Forests cannot be sustained if people are hungry,” said Kyte. “Hunger places a direct burden on forests when people are forced to push deeper into forested areas to grow crops. And when hunger and poverty take their toll, people resort to making and selling charcoal faster than the natural rate of forest regeneration in order to buy food.”

A recent FAO report identified the big challenges to balancing the competing pressures on global food system and called for an integrated approach to food security with a focus on “climate-smart agriculture”. But this cannot be achieved without forests, suggested Frances Seymour, Director General at the Center of International Forestry Research.

“The big thing that is wildly underappreciated is the role of forests in providing ecosystem services that sustain mainstream agriculture – the hydrological services, the pollination services, which forests provide for free. As greater international attention is placed on agriculture and food security, forests are going to be part of the picture,” she said.

With the resilience of people and wildlife to adapt to changes in climate declining as vast areas of forest are wiped out, the world’s largest consortium of agricultural researchers this week launched a global research program devoted to forests and agroforestry. The $233 million CGIAR research program on Forests, Trees, and Agroforestry aims to help countries expand their focus from dense canopy tropical forests to mixed agricultural forest landscapes where people and trees come into greater contact.

“We call it the triple win: mitigating climate change by building resilience in farming and forest systems while increasing yields and income. Farmers already understand that growing trees on farms can help fatten their livestock, break the impact of parchment, and improve soil conditions,” said Kyte.

“Then in a few years those trees will provide wood fuel for domestic use or for sale. Our job is to support policies nationally and internationally that encourage those kinds of practices, based on good science and common sense.”

Mitigation and adaptation initiatives, particularly in forests and agriculture, will only succeed if they are pro-poor, said Kyte.

“We can try to ring-fence forests or try to ban charcoal but unless and until access to land, crop productivity, energy affordability and extreme poverty are addressed, our best efforts will be in vain.”

The global climate community have to propose viable and integrated solutions that work for people on the ground, she said. Unless they benefit from the protection of watersheds, or increased crop yields, have higher income, or can live with greater climate resilience, the best laid carbon plans will fail.

“We need to act now, and if we act decisively, we can reverse the vicious cycles and start investing in landscape restoration and poverty reduction programs that deliver that triple win.”

Rachel Kyte, Vice President of Sustainable Development at the World Bank, speaking to CIFOR at Forest Day 5. More videos from Forest Day 5


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