Forest News #9

Our February issue is focused on landscape restoration and certified timber production. Our selection of articles looks into some of the critical aspects: the impacts of large-scale projects, the challenges of proving impact with robust scientific data and the difficulties of implementing certification schemes that try to incorporate multiple dimensions. Plenty of food for thought, we hope.

So you want to be a sustainable small-scale coffee farmer in Peru? Where do you start? This video by the Rainforest Alliance, a certification NGO, gives a close-up portrait of such a farmer. Despite the music and promotional tone, it shows nicely the many aspects of an integrated approach where coffee production is only a part of securing a livelihood.

This month:

Landscape Restoration

  • Restoration work is being carried out at different scales, from very small to very large, and with different approaches. Starting at a small scale, this article from the Rainforest Alliance shows how a certified coffee farmer in northern Peru has restored his degraded land into a productive agroforestry farm, an approach being promoted with many small farmers under this certification scheme focused on tying conservation with market access for more sustainable products. In 2000, he planted 1’000 trees in his lands and has since then diversified the landscape with new crops and coffee varieties, in addition to implementing organic composting, wastewater treatment, and other measures. Our video highlight of this month gives a nice visual impression of the results.
  • Moving to restoration at national level, one of the main international movements is the Bonn Challenge, a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, increased to 350 million hectares by 2030.
  • Pakistan become the first country to fulfil its Bonn Challenge commitment when it concluded the large-scale reforestation project called Billion Tree Tsunami, successfully and ahead of schedule. The goal was to restore 350,000 hectares of degraded forest landscapes in the Hindu Kush mountain region, by planting and promoting natural regeneration. Interestingly, the monitoring conducted by WWF Pakistan in cooperation with international agencies indicates that the average mortality rates in the first year was of only 16%, much lower than what is commonly observed in many replanting projects.
  • In 1999 China launched the reforestation program “Grain for Green” to mitigate soil erosion and flooding disasters. The program seems to have been a success: by 2015 the country’s tree cover had increased by 32%. However, a recent study shows that most reforestation efforts used only one tree species, making restored lands similar to monoculture plantations that bring limited environmental benefits. Although dating back to 2012, this article at the Yale School of Forestry‘s journal highlights several important – and still current – points in such large-scale projects.

Certified Timber

  • The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a worldwide certification program to promote sustainable logging practices and one of the most famous ones. A frequent question is: does this certification scheme work? As part of Mongabay’s “Conservation effectiveness” series, this article reviewed 40 studies and found that certified tropical forests are better for the environment than forests managed conventionally, but scientific evidence linking the certification with the positive impacts is hard to come by. Well worth the read, as it shows the challenges in collecting data and how this can raise other very plausible explanations (e.g. pre-existing conditions or more responsible forest managers). Also, the evidence supporting FSC-driven social impacts on workers and local communities is not so clear.
  • As with other large scale programmes (REDD+ comes to mind), the FSC scheme has to contend with and answer criticism on different fronts. This opinion article at the YaleEnvironment360 journal provides an interesting, if scathing, perspective of FSC.
  • Since 2014, FSC certification schemes require the protection of at least 80% of intact forest landscapes (also known as IFL) within a certified concession. By definition, an IFL is an area of forest without signs of human use and at least 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) large. However, a recent study found that logging roads in Africa’s Congo Basin cause a higher loss of untouched forests in FSC-certified logging concessions than in non-certified concessions. These roads are problematic since they facilitate the movement of people into the forest, accelerating its degradation. These results highlight potential conflicts about integrating IFLs in certified areas, with critics arguing for a separation between these. Interestingly, is also highlights how much relies on the methods used to assess damages Much of the monitoring nowadays is done remotely, with satellite imagery. Certified timber companies tend to build roads that are more robust, and easier to spot from the air, than non-certified companies. By definition, once there is a road an IFL is no longer an IFL. And so, even though FSC-certified companies have more obligations to minimise their impact, decommission unused roads and promote recovery of forests, this works to their disadvantage since they’re more easily monitored and penalised. Ultimately, this might drive companies away from a certification scheme that makes compliance more difficult or economically non-viable.
  • In addition to FSC, several initiatives work on the legality and sustainability of tropical timber products. These initiatives target timber demands from developed countries, whereas it is often assumed that consumers in developing countries choose their timber products based only on price. However, a recent CIFOR study points in a different direction and finds that, although demand for legal timber in Cameroon is still low, more and more consumers there are looking for legal products. It will be interesting to see how this develops in the coming years.

Suggested reading

  • How much have we changed  our world in the last one hundred years? Our book suggestion from this month is “Earth then and now : potent visual evidence of our changing world“, by Fred Pearce, which presents a collection of 250 “before and now” images of locations around the world and with captions explaining the changes that have occurred in just a short amount of time.