Forests are emerging from the environmental ghetto of concerns where they were left to die. For years, forest conservation languished in the shadow of fossil fuels in the climate change debate. But there’s now a rising awareness that their loss as habitats is driving the current mass extinction of animal species, and they were center stage at the recent UN climate summit in New York with their own new declaration.
Coinciding with the summit, the UK pledged money to help end illegal timber entering Europe and promote ‘public private partnerships’ to ‘manage forests sustainably.’
However well intended, the New York forest declaration foresees the logging of natural forests continuing for another 16 years, which in terms of business and political horizons is effectively forever. It is also too late to halt critical climate feedbacks. Take away the cloak of good intentions and it could easily become a business as usual initiative.
Where the UK government is concerned it is already obliged under the EU timber regulations to ban illegal timber, and it needs to be careful with the language of sustainable forest management. As forest experts such as Professor Brendan Mackey argue, where intact tropical forests are concerned, ‘sustainable management’ is an oxymoron if large scale commercial enterprise is involved and fundamentally new approaches to protection are needed.
Yet, away from summits something very interesting is happening at forest floor level. Putting communities in charge of their forests is having a transformative effect, as a new collection of stories on the struggles of forest peoples from Africa to Latin America reveals.
Community management of forests has already been shown to be better generally for forest protection and the climate. But now, action at the local level is pointing toward hows community initiatives can better marry development and respect for ecosystems.
For example, Ecuador is rich in tropical forests which cover a third of the country. Every square kilometer of forest supports around 150 people. But Ecuadorians have limited rights and only half of the indigenous groups and smallholder farmers that customarily own their forests have legal title to them.
One of the biggest problems at the local level was lack of access to information. So, local groups organized and trained communities to use a law obliging the government to make available information considered in the public interest. They now find themselves in a better position to protect their rights and the forests.
In Ghana, the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organisational Development (CIKOD) worked with local chiefs to change a pattern of forest destruction and the loss of economic benefits, to agree a charter based on a combination of traditional and modern natural resource management practices.
“The kingdom is bigger than the most powerful chief,” said Osahene Aterkyi II, resident of a Regional House of Chiefs, who trialled the charter in his community and sees it as a vital step to improve local accountability. The experience provided important lessons on bringing communities and traditional leaders into the debate on forest protection.
Improving rights, access to information and accountability are vital. But local groups are also taking action to stop abuse of the laws meant to control forest management.
Emmanuel Belashayi, who works for Réseau Ressources Naturelles (RRN, the Natural Resources Network) in Bateke Plateau, on the east bank of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo explains: “In this area, if a Congolese person has an artisanal logging permit, there is usually a Chinese company hiding behind him.”
Such permits are meant to allow communities to make a living from small scale extraction of timber. But Emmanuel found that companies were buying up the permits and using them to log anywhere. He worked to bring the abuse to the attention of the government which led to a ministerial clampdown.
Other, similar stories to these can be found from Liberia to Peru and beyond.
We need governments to make big decisions to steer humanity to operate within planetary boundaries. Action at that level can reallocate resources from destructive to constructive activities, and globally from those with more than enough to those who have too little.
But something else governments have to do is give power to communities who can make things happen at the ground level, and recognize their role in finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems. That might be making renewable energy a success in Britain or, in this case, finding a way for humanity as a whole to live with, rather than cut down, forests that are intrinsically valuable, vital for local livelihoods and, in an age of climatic upheaval, something upon which we all depend for our collective survival.