Time to restore human relations with nature and biodiversity

The degradation and loss of forests and biodiversity is a contributing factor to disrupting nature’s balance and increasing the risks of human epidemic diseases in general.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a deep and lasting shock at global level; we all know that returning to “business as usual” is not an option. It is imperative that we perceive the crisis as an opportunity to rebuild—and even improve—livelihoods in a sustainable way. High on the agenda is restoring harmony to humanity’s relationship with nature, and particularly with biodiversity.

The 2020 edition of the State of the World’s Forests report, produced in partnership by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), helps map a strategy to do that. The report examines the contributions of forests, and of the people who use and manage them, to the conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity.

Forests are home to most of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity—they provide us with a wide array of services, ranging from cleaner air and water to natural foods consumed by one billion people and cooking fuel for 2.4 billion people. Forests also have a direct impact on human survival providing more than 86 million green jobs and supporting the livelihoods of many others.

We must do more and better to ensure the protection of this gift that keeps giving. Obtaining sustainable benefits from forests means paying more attention to their needs, which are actually our needs too. The degradation and loss of forests and biodiversity is a contributing factor to disrupting nature’s balance and increasing the risks of human epidemic diseases in general. While global deforestation slowed in the last decade, some 10 million hectares are still being lost each year, and alongside them, vital species.

The evidence is clear that the main driver of deforestation is agriculture expansion. Non-rational land use and plantation for meat, oil and cereal production, followed by subsistence farming activities, account for 75 percent of tropical deforestation.

To turn the tide, we need to innovate and implement sustainable agricultural practices that leverage nature-based solutions and protect biodiversity. Agriculture’s own function and resilience depends on biodiversity to support pollination services, water cycling, soil and erosion controls. Protecting biodiversity is not only important for the environment, it is also a precondition for more diverse, healthy, balanced and nutritious diets. 

We also need to put in place integrated landscape approaches. Forests can be conserved and managed in ways that create jobs, reclaim ecosystems and improve habitats for people and nature alike.

Consider, for example, the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area of tropical forest in Central America. Created in 1990, a considerable share of the area was granted under multiple use concessions to communities comprising smallholders, who also received technical assistance, market access, institutional support and a regulatory framework. This encouraged them to conduct some timber extraction while maintaining stipulated stewardship standards. It turns out these groups have logged less than the average for the whole reserve, reduced incidences of forest fires, increased forest cover and maintained local jaguar populations.

Apart from the encouraging performance of the people engaged, the jaguars are not a detail. They showcase another important aspect of conservation and restoration: Forests are not just home to biodiversity, but actively depend on their inhabitants. Some iconic tree communities around the world rely on native animals—the bears of North America, the gorillas of Central Africa, the pandas of China, the koalas of Australia—to act as ecological architects with major roles in seed dispersal, among other critical ecosystem services.

This holistic approach is essential to moving from knowledge to action, as we prepare for the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which will be led jointly by FAO and UNEP.

One striking finding in this year’s State of the World’s Forests report is that seven percent of the global forest area is divided among more than 34 million small patches, each covering less than 1000 hectares or 10 square kilometers. Such fragmentation hampers the landscape arenas that biodiversity thrives in. We need more large-scale restoration, done in a way that supports livelihoods for rural communities and mitigates climate change.

The COVID-19 emergency is a global warning which we hope—despite the devastation it has caused—can act as a catalyst to pursue more creative and inclusive paths to a happier future where we plant new trees while conserving those we have. Forests and the rich biodiversity they host keep our communities and economies going, and we must work with nature to ensure they thrive.

QU Dongyu is the Director-General of FAO and Inger Andersen is the Executive Director of UNEP

This story was written as an op-ed on May 22 for the launch of the State of the World’s Forests report

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