Time to dust off the vuvuzelas

Ahead of the World Forestry Congress, which opens in Durban next week, Duncan Macqueen asks whether African forests can be saved.

South Africans celebrate 'Vuvuzela Day': the World Forestry Congress in Durban will discuss critical forestry issues (Photo: Dundas Football Club, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

It's a landmark moment. Less frequent even than the FIFA World Cup (though perhaps more worthy and less contentious), the World Forestry Congress (WFC) is held once every six years. And following its better known stablemate, the WFC is for the first time going to South Africa – time to dust off the vuvuzelas.

Why so important? Well, it is in Africa that much of the world's expected population growth is expected to happen.

Spiralling new demands for food will place massive additional pressure on the regions remaining forests. Can the needs of the poor, and our desire to protect the forest, go hand in hand? Or will the forests vanish, the farming systems on which they depend collapse, and an unprecedented outmigration ensue? It is in Africa that we will find out.

The forests of Southern Africa are often overlooked compared with the block of Congo Basin rainforests – and are often referred to by the slightly dismissive title 'woodlands'. Yet the dryland Southern African forests, mostly Miombo woodland, cover at least twice the area of their humid African forest counterparts.

They are also home to much larger rural populations – driving deforestation at higher rates. While agricultural expansion is the key driver of deforestation, increasing timber extraction is also being fueled by growing exports to China, and wood fuels will be the mainstay of national energy consumption for most countries in Southern Africa for the foreseeable future.

Putting it in numbers, the loss of carbon into the atmosphere from Southern African forests is in the range of 113 to 144 TgC (1 TgC = I million metric tonnes of carbon) per year compared to 71 TgC per year from the Congo Basin humid forests or 94 TgC per year for the Brazilian Amazon in 2010.

That’s a big deal in terms of contributions to climate change. Put another way, anybody expecting to solve the world's climate problems without involving the hundreds of millions of poor forest farm producers in places such as Southern Africa is simply delusional.

Encouraging, therefore, is the news that representatives of forest and farm producer organisations are making something of an entrance at this year's WFC (7-11 September 2015 in Durban).

Up to 100 representatives will be putting across at least some of the views of the 1.3 billion people who depend on forests at a pre-congress event: Building momentum for community-based forestry, forest and farm producer organisation (PDF). They have been preparing their messages at prior meetings in China (PDF), Kenya, the Philippines and Mexico (PDF). Some of what they have to say has been captured in a special edition of the European Tropical Forest Research Network News No. 57 (PDF) to be launched at the event.

What forest and farm producers are saying (in summary) is that with secure legal control over forest land, technical support, and fair access to markets, they can turn increasing demand for forest and farm products into an incentive for reforestation and landscape restoration – not a driver of deforestation. At Rio+20 they also made a loud call for more attention to Investing in Locally Controlled Forestry. Stirring stuff – but is it possible?

Not only is it possible, but "it must be made to work if we are to reduce poverty and protect forests at the same time". This is the conclusion of a new book in which IIED's Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) partners, and knowledge partners in the Forest Connect alliance (an alliance of 1,000-plus individuals from 94 countries who support locally controlled forest enterprises), have compiled 19 successful locally-controlled forest business models.

It will be launched at one of several IIED-supported side events at WFC. Looking at the detail of these case studies, which come from 14 countries, presses home three important points: 

  1. Democratic, locally controlled, forest-farm business models can deliver local and global products and services in competitive markets
  2. They can remain profitable (albeit not profit-maximising) while maintaining flows of local forest-derived food, energy, construction materials, clean water, medicines and so on for their member-owners and these businesses can protect the forests from which these goods and services come, and
  3. Their survival depends to a large degree on the strength of, and investment in, their underlying business organisations. 

This investment in forest-farm producer organisations is the central emphasis of the FFF (a partnership between FAO, IUCN and IIED).

The logic, approach and track record of FFF are gathering increasing support as the successor to the National Forest Programme Facility. A new memorandum of understanding between FFF and the Swedish Cooperative Centre (now We-Effect) that helps build local forest and farm producer organisations is one of many examples of this expanding partnership.

So if you want to save the forest and the people who live in it – follow them and us in Durban.

Duncan Macqueen (duncan.macqueen@iied.org) is principal researcher in IIED's forest team with the Natural Resources Group.

Resources / who to follow at WFC