Healthy forests have always been a vital resource for the communities living in, and around, them. Offering food, clothing, fuel and medicine, forests also stabilize the water table and guard against soil erosion. Timber from forests also serves local, national and international markets, generates jobs and is an important revenue stream for many governments around the world.
Forests have also increasingly been tasked with combatting the double threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the role of forests in preventing diseases which has further added to the need to preserve the world’s forest area.
However, at the same time, pressure on forest lands is increasing, particularly for agriculture and also for mining, infrastructure and urbanization. But, with myriad demands placed on forests, and impacts that transcend political boundaries, achieving a balance requires a reckoning of local and global priorities.
International forest initiatives until now have, quite rationally, prioritized a globalized conceptualization of forests – privileging their place in global supply chains and global crises. International regulations around timber, for instance, are primarily aimed at securing a long-term source of timber by reducing illegality in the system while national plans under the Paris Agreement focus on forests primarily as a global carbon sink.
Within these initiatives, local impacts are often dealt with as flanking measures. Community benefit-sharing agreements, compensation schemes and incentive programmes are aimed at mitigating impacts and modifying behaviour at the local level so that these align with international goals.
Meanwhile, and despite intense international attention, it has been found that globally natural forest cover declined in the six years since the New York Declaration of Forests set a goal to halve deforestation. Greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise and, although there have been successes, illegal timber continues to be traded internationally.
To halt these trends, it is important to reflect on the demands being placed on forests and to achieve a better balance between them. But this will require radical change. That’s why, in July, Chatham House convened an online Global Forum on Forest Governance at which these issues were explored.
One issue that was discussed is why it remains vital to listen to, and learn from, a wide range of voices. Single perspectives fail to acknowledge or respond to the full range of pressures exerted on forests therefore it is important to have a range of perspectives including those from the global north and south, economists and agronomists, social scientists and climate scientists.
But beyond the research community, all those who have a stake in forests must be included in the discussion too: women and men, young and old people, those living in urban and rural areas as well as people from the government and private sectors.
This lesson has often been repeated but rarely enacted perhaps because it is not easy to do and takes time. Nevertheless, broadening participation can help deliver the deep-rooted changes that are needed to the way forests are governed and managed.
Considerable evidence exists to show that improvements to governance can facilitate a more equitable approach to forests that better balances the needs and priorities of these different groups. Legal and institutional reforms, for example, that are sensitive to the needs of local populations have precipitated change. Successes in improving transparency have also been a key factor in holding both the private sector and governments to account.
Thus, creating radical change may not mean brand new ideas. Lessons can be learnt from the successes and failures of the past. It will be important that, as new and increasing demands are placed on already overburdened forests, these lessons are not forgotten and previous mistakes are not repeated.
What will matter over the next few years will be which ideas are acted upon and who gets to decide. As more than 100 countries announce plans to increase the ambition of their nationally determined contributions on emission reductions, and as the EU and the US move forward with plans to legislate deforestation out of commodity supply chains, a clear message that has emerged is that local actors need to be in the driving seat. This needs to go beyond listening and consultation to meaningful engagement that gives due weight to local priorities, perspectives and experience.