Rio+20: Forests form important foundation for a green economy

Forests constitute the vast majority of what is green on planet earth. The quest for a green economy at Rio+20 excited the full spectrum of the forest community – from forest industries to local forest rights-holder groups. Both groups have something to offer – although it may be necessary to invest more in locally-controlled forestry if a fair green economy is to be achieved.

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26 June 2012

Logs from a community-managed forest in Ethiopia.

The potential role of the forest sector in emerging bio-economies is immense. Vietnam has spotted the potential and is driving the sustainable management and expansion of its forests.   

Just prior to Rio+20, Indonesia’s President Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono heralded the new approach, announcing that the country had passed a law to permanently conserve 35% of its tropical rain forests and that 3.2 billion trees had been planted in the past 2 years.

Worldwide, woody biomass dwarfs all other renewable energy sources, and is booming. Wood composite construction materials now frame multi-storey housing structures with a much lower energy footprint than concrete alternatives. Wood-based, recyclable packaging materials are increasingly sophisticated. Mixing wood production within agro-forest systems can enhance soil fertility and help meet food security needs. In Brazil, fast-developing nanotechnologies are being touted as the source of new wood-based products from cosmetics to construction.

Forest industry’s role

The forest industry sees its future as a central player in the new green bio-economy. The important role the forest industry can play was discussed at a Food and Agrictulture Organization (FAO) session at the Rio+20 conference, as was the important role certification systems can play in helping demonstrate sustainable forest management.

The potential contribution of forests to a green economy was also highlighted at the CIFOR’s 8th  roundtable at Rio+20.

Upbeat industry aside, forests only crept at the last gasp of the negotiations into the final text of ‘The future we want,’ the formal Rio+20 agreement. The text notes the importance of sustainable forest management and on-going efforts to reduce deforestation, but contains no concrete commitments towards that end, nor any mention of a scheme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, called REDD+. The absence is worrying given that deforestation contributes approximately one-sixth of man-made emissions and potentially up to one-third of realistic mitigation options.

Improving livelihoods and protecting forests 

Despite the silence on REDD+ the text did say something rather significant.

“We commit to improving the livelihoods of people and communities by creating the conditions needed for them to sustainably manage forests including through strengthening cooperation arrangements in the areas of finance, trade, transfer of environmentally sound technologies, capacity-building and governance, as well as by promoting secure land tenure, particularly decision-making and benefit sharing, in accordance with national legislation and priorities”.

While the wording is rather laborious, the intent is clear – to improve livelihoods and protect the forests together. The recipe bears a striking resemblance to the vision set out in the publication  ‘Investing in locally controlled forestry’ and advanced by three major alliances of family forest farmers, forest communities and indigenous peoples, the self-styled Three Rights Holders Group (G3), in this document.

The G3 presented examples from Sweden and Nepal to show how investing in locally-controlled forestry can protect forests while creating jobs at the Fair Ideas conference organised by IIED. They also provided a framework for achieving that vision. It involves enabling investment (for example, from donor funds) to put in place a virtuous circle of:

  • securing commercial rights to forests;
  • building business capacity to run sustainable forest businesses profitably;
  • working collaboratively to build enterprise-oriented organisations at a scale that both attracts, and also allows fair negotiations with financial investors. This in turn helps to secure further rights, capacity and organisation at scale.

This vision seems to have resonance with a wider public. In the Rio+20 dialogues on forests, ‘Invest in locally controlled forestry’ was voted as the fourth most supported proposal from the general public attending the conference. Given that the first three proposals involved forest restoration (twice) and knowledge promotion to turn forests productive without destroying them – with no indication of how this might be achieved, the framework for investing in locally controlled forestry seems even more compelling. Indeed, at a live voting session with 1500 participants on the 17 June 2012 ‘Invest in locally controlled forestry’ came second overall receiving 40.9% of the vote.

Achieving a green economy that both protects forests and improves livelihoods will require both technological advances towards a green bio-economy within the forest industry, and much more concerted investment in locally-controlled forestry. While both are necessary, supporting locally-controlled forestry will be key to achieving a fair, green economy.

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