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Birds chirping. Leaves rustling. The rhythm of a stream rushing by. Rays of sun streaming through the trees – some of which are over 100 years old and have survived world wars, the effects of climate change to the loss, and now, the gradual return of critically important creatures such as lynx and wolves. The forest near my home in Upper Austria is my happy place. Like many others around the world, the forest and natural space around me have offered a peaceful grounding effect during these deeply unsettling times. But what if, one day, these forests were to all disappear or suffer damage beyond repair, never to be enjoyed again in our lifetime?
For countless communities around the world, this has been their reality. There are an estimated 1.6 billion people around the world living within 5km of a forest and every year hectare upon hectare of precious forest is cleared in places that local people, their ancestors and unique local flora and fauna have known as their home since time immemorial. In fact, The State of the World’s Forests 2020, a report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), revealed that our planet has lost around 420 million hectares of forest to other uses since 1990. Although the annual global rate of deforestation over the last five years has declined, we're still estimated to be losing roughly 30 soccer fields of forest a minute - that’s around 40,000 daily. These figures represent staggering biodiversity loss that will not only impact our natural world and the animals within it but the well-being of humans for generations to come. The COVID-19 pandemic makes us more aware than ever of the devastating impact the exploitation of animals and nature can have on human health, yet we still see worrying reports of increased deforestation around the world during lockdowns over the last year. We must break this vicious circle.
Home to 80% of terrestrial wildlife and critical to stabilising our climate, forests hold immense socio-cultural value to people around the world and an economic value estimated at up to double that of the global stock markets. It is today that we must remind ourselves and our leaders that drastic action must be taken, and soon, to reverse these losses driven largely by agricultural expansion, climate change, wood extraction and infrastructure development. More than a third of global tree species are already on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and over 90% of people living in extreme poverty globally are dependent on healthy forests as part of their livelihood strategies. We have an obligation to prioritise solutions that work for both people and nature. When communities lose forests, they don’t just lose vital nutritional and medicinal resources, or environmental benefits necessary to make an income for their families, such as clean water, fresh air and fertile soil. They also risk losing centuries of cultural heritage and traditional ways of knowing forever. So why then, do we not trust and empower those who know and depend on the land better than anyone to make the best choices possible for the long-term sustainability of forest ecosystems?
Both poverty and deforestation rates declined in Nepal when local communities were given the right and responsibility to look after their own forests. In fact, data gathered from over 18,000 sites revealed a 37% reduction in deforestation rates when forest management was decentralised. Numerous other studies from around the world in recent years have confirmed that, when given the chance, the majority of local communities will protect rather than destroy their forests. In fact, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are investing an estimated 16–23% of the amount spent by governments, donors, foundations, and NGOs combined on conservation, despite the fact that they represent a significant proportion of the world’s poor. A study by the Rights and Resources Initiative confirmed that Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendants exercise customary rights on at least half of the global landmass, outside of Antarctica. Nonetheless, reference to protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples was removed from the articles of the Paris Agreement during negotiations five years ago and they have legal rights to just a fraction of forests worldwide. We must take every opportunity to demand more from our world leaders to ensure indigenous rights holders and local communities can secure their rights to manage their natural resources. For the future of our planet, of animals and of humanity. Not just because it will benefit us all, but most of all, because it’s the right thing to do.
Although this change will take time, as will many of the other strategies to tackle deforestation, all hope is not lost. There are plenty of things we can do ourselves in the meantime while we continue pushing our leaders and industries to do better. For example, when it comes to transforming production and consumption patterns, particularly with regards to our global food system - which accounts for roughly 60% of biodiversity loss. As individuals we can start playing an immediate role in shifting towards a more forest-friendly food system by purchasing products certified by credible third-party schemes, reducing food waste, or simply taking time to learn more about the production methods of our favourite foods to ensure their social and environmental impact are aligned with our values. Urging that agriculture practices transition from linear extractive methods towards circular, local production and local markets. Or perhaps starting with digging deeper into the products we buy and brands we support with regards to coffee, cocoa, animal products and palm oil products – which is found in around half of the packaged products on supermarket shelves and responsible for 1/5 of deforestation in Borneo. In Australia, IFAW is also working with our partner on the ground, Bangalow Koalas, and hundreds of volunteers to restore vital ’wildlife corridors’ that have been destroyed. By planting thousands of eucalyptus trees, we are providing koalas with a safe passage between landscapes and protecting them for future generations.
As so many of us now venture out to our happy places in the outdoors and forests to find solace after yet another week of blurred boundaries between work and home, worrying news of novel Covid variants and global vaccination rollouts, let’s not take this precious resource for granted and, importantly, remember that we are not the only ones who deserve this opportunity to thrive alongside nature. We have to ask ourselves what we want future generations to say about the way we treated our forests and the animals and communities that live within them. We have to ask ourselves what we want future generations to say about the way we treated each other.
– Melissa Liszewski, Senior Programme Manager – Community Engagement, IFAW