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A Big Picture Approach to Forests

March 1, 2012


The International Year of Forests wrapped up in February 2012. At the closing ceremony, the United Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat launched a publication entitled "Forests for People" to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people and the forests on which so many depend. Sustainable Development Vice President Rachel Kyte contributed this article on behalf of the World Bank.


Forests are central to the World Bank’s mission of poverty eradication and sustainable development.

Forests are a crucial safety net for people struggling to avert famine in times of economic or agricultural stress: trees provide fruits, leaves, nuts, gum, fuelwood, timber — very tangible goods that people can eat, feed their animals, or trade for food when regular crops fail.

But even in good times, forests and trees on farms play a vital part in meeting the needs of millions of people around the world — from indigenous peoples, who are key custodians of the last intact natural forests, to farmers and city dwellers. Over the years, the world has come to understand the full range of valuable ecosystem services forests perform. Forests regulate watersheds, house pollinating bats and bees, host 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, maintain soil fertility, and control erosion.

Because of their versatility, forests are an indispensable ally in our collective search for a better future in which more people will be able to achieve prosperity without damaging their environment.

This vision of “green growth” guides the World Bank Group’s work in the forest and agriculture sectors. As climate change and food shortages throw new challenges in the path of developing countries, our programs are supporting solutions that increase productivity without compromising livelihoods, soil, water, biodiversity, and forests. To avoid solving a problem while exacerbating another, the World Bank urges its client countries to take an integrated approach to climate change, poverty, and food security.

" Forests and trees on farms play a vital part in meeting the needs of millions of people around the world — from indigenous peoples, who are key custodians of the last intact natural forests, to farmers and city dwellers. "

Rachel Kyte

World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development

A Triple Win

Although agricultural expansion and shifting agriculture are the main drivers of deforestation and forest degradation in different parts of the world, and deforestation and forest degradation in turn emit a significant share of global greenhouse gas emissions, there are several reasons for hoping we are close to reversing this negative trend.

Recent years have seen the creation of “sustainable commodity roundtables” that bring the private sector, financiers, governments, smallholders, and civil society organizations together to produce commodities such as soy, palm oil, sugar, and cotton, in sustainable ways that include “zero deforestation” targets. This approach complements the laudable progress made by producer and consumer countries to clean up the timber value chain. The World Bank has been a strong believer in forest law enforcement and governance efforts to combat illegal logging and develop a more level playing field for legitimate forest sector enterprises and forest-dependent people, and supports multi-stakeholder processes to make supply chains more sustainable.

There is also momentum behind the idea that forestry and agriculture are closely linked agendas and that integrated landscape approaches hold the ticket to sound rural development. In particular, “climate-smart” agriculture (which includes proven practical techniques, such as mulching, intercropping, and agroforestry, as well as innovative practices, such as better weather forecasting, more resilient food crops and risk insurance) can deliver sustainable and profitable crop intensification and encourage the planting or regeneration of trees on farms, while reducing deforestation.

Finally, there is growing awareness that landscape restoration measures are an indispensable tool in the fight against the twin ills of poverty and environmental degradation. The vicious cycle of land degradation, low yields, poverty, and expansion of the agricultural frontier into marginal grasslands and forest lands can be broken through natural forest regeneration programs, tree planting, and numerous other locally-appropriate land management techniques. According to a recent global assessment, up to two billion hectares of lost or degraded forest landscapes could be restored and rehabilitated worldwide. (Restoration does not mean returning land to its hypothetical “original” state, but rather regenerating functional, locally adapted ecosystems, in which forests and agriculture are sustainable and able to coexist.) If even a fraction of those areas were to be restored to functional and productive ecosystems, they could help deliver a “triple win” by improving rural livelihoods and food security, increasing climate resilience, and helping mitigate green house gases — while taking pressure off pristine forests.

The World Bank has seen this promise materialize in many countries.

In China for example, the Bank supported over the course of a decade one of the world’s largest erosion control programs, which has returned the devastated Loess Plateau to sustainable agricultural production, improving the livelihoods of 2.5 million people and securing food supplies in an area where food was sometimes scarce in the past. The project encouraged natural regeneration of grasslands, tree, and shrub cover on previously cultivated slope-lands. Replanting and managed grazing regimes allowed the perennial vegetation cover to increase from 17 to 34 percent between 1999 and 2004. Terracing not only increased average yields, but also significantly lowered their variability. Agricultural production has changed from generating a narrow range of food and low-value grain commodities to high-value products. It is estimated that as many as 20 million people have benefited from the replication of the Loess Plateau approach throughout China.

In Vietnam, a coastal wetlands protection and development project (1999-2007) demonstrated that it is possible to reduce pressure on coastal mangrove ecosystems, while improving the livelihoods of coastal communities who have witnessed a resurgence of aquatic resources such as crabs and clams. Planted and protected by local communities in the Mekong delta, the mangroves return the favor by protecting people when storms rage.

In Albania, a project that integrated forest, pasture and agriculture management (2005-2011) showed that with strong involvement of local communities, forest resources and whole landscapes can improve dramatically. Improved management of Albania’s forest and pasture resources and watersheds in 240 communes, through participatory planning, institutional change and small-scale investments in planting of forests and orchards in degraded lands, thinning and cleaning of degraded forests and pastures, as well as erosion and grazing control measures, contributed to a 25 percent increase in income earned from forest activities in communal forest and pasture lands and a 50 percent increase in income earned from forest and agriculture activities in micro-catchments. All while sequestering carbon.

Working with Partners

Although the World Bank Group is the largest source of multilateral finance for forests, its lending and grants are still a drop in the bucket of funds necessary to achieve global forest goals — from conservation of dense-canopy tropical forests (where deforestation and climate change could fuel a dangerous process of dieback), to sustainable forest management and landscape restoration schemes. We need to find ways to leverage and blend different sources of financing to tip the balance in favor of sustainable practices.

For example, the Bank Group is exploring a wide range of opportunities to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and to conserve, sustainably manage and enhance forest carbon stocks. This large-scale “payments for environmental services” approach known as REDD+ will likely rest on a complex mix of multilateral and bilateral assistance, civil society efforts, private sector initiatives and carbon markets.

The Bank’s approach has been to prepare and pilot different REDD+ initiatives through partnerships. The Bank serves as the Trustee and the Secretariat of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), a global partnership that is helping 37 countries draft REDD+ readiness plans and will provide carbon payments to countries that meet certain targets. It is the implementing organization, together with other multilateral development banks, of the Forest Investment Program (FIP), and is financing pilot investments through the BioCarbon Fund, a public-private initiative that mobilizes resources for pioneering projects that mitigate climate change and improve local livelihoods.

The Bank Group recognizes that the private sector and individuals play a key role in shaping tomorrow’s landscape. In order to succeed, our initiatives must benefit first and foremost the indigenous peoples, forest-dependent communities and smallholder farmers who depend on natural resources for their survival and livelihood. The Bank also encourages responsible corporate investments across the forest products supply chain through its private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and aims to create a more level playing field for legitimate forest-sector enterprises by providing technical assistance in the area of forest law enforcement and governance. It is working with a range of partners to identify business opportunities and supportive policy reforms that could boost private investment in trees and landscape restoration and bring grass-roots re-greening initiatives to the next level of impact and scale.