Skip to main content

FORESTS: Complex world of forests needs to be better understood – UN official

Jan McAlpine, Director of the United Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat.
UN Photo/Metehan Kurt
Jan McAlpine, Director of the United Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat.

FORESTS: Complex world of forests needs to be better understood – UN official

Despite a great deal of work in recent years there is still a lack of understanding of the link between forests and society, the economy and the wider world, the Director of the United Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat said, as countries meet in Istanbul to chart a way forward on a number of forestry-related issues.

Over the next two weeks, participants at the Forum’s tenth session (UNFF10) will examine how to reduce deforestation, improve the livelihoods and economies of people who depend on forests, increase the number of forests under protection, and increase aid to developing countries to improve forest management.

“I would argue that forests are one of the complex systems to understand and grasp,” said Jan McAlpine. “And one reason why we haven’t been able to do it effectively is because sometimes it’s simpler to take a narrow issue and address it, rather than to be able to look at a system as complex as forests and see how it fits into the landscape of these broader sets of issues,” she told delegates as they began their deliberations yesterday.

The Forum, holding its first ever session outside UN Headquarters, is the only international body that addresses all forest and tree policy issues. Established by the UN Economic and Social Council in 2000, it is tasked with promoting the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests.

In an interview with the UN News Centre, Ms. McAlpine noted that while there are a number of challenges facing forests today, “people are the most important challenge.”

“I don’t mean that they necessary have the intention to be negative, but because they don’t understand the complexities and the importance of forests and their value, they have ignored them to the detriment of those resources for the future, and that is probably the biggest challenge.”

The theme for the current session is forests and economic development. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that forestry products contribute nearly $468 billion annually to the global economy, while studies being presented at UNFF10 show that we may have grossly underestimated the actual economic, social and environmental values.

In his report on forests and economic development, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed out that forests have played a major role to influence patterns of economic development, support livelihoods and promote sustainable growth, in many countries.

“Forests provide significant subsistence benefits, generate informal work opportunities, and constitute reservoirs of economic values that help mitigate shocks to household incomes, particularly for the rural poor.”

He went on to say that that if the contribution of the forestry sector to gross domestic product (GDP) alone is in the neighbourhood of $468 billion per year, it is projected to be two to three times greater for benefits that are not included in GDP figures.

“The material/cash benefits of forests generally tend to be better recognized, while the non-cash contributions of forests, including non-wood forest products, ecosystem services, tourism and cultural benefits are largely ‘invisible’,” he stated.

A study by FAO in Uganda, cited in the report, demonstrates that forests provide fuelwood for local energy consumption, which accounts for 40 per cent of the local economy, and the non-cash component is three times the value of the cash component.

Ms. McAlpine said that if one looks at the GDP figures alone, there might be a tendency to think that forests are not a priority.

“But, and this is the discussion here at the UNFF10, if you start to look at the social and livelihoods and economic benefits and functions that forests provide beyond timber and traded goods across borders, then you start to understand it’s much more complex,” she stated.

“So what we are talking about here is quite an interesting and substantive and complex discussion about how we start to explain to the world that forests’ value is probably billions of dollars more than economists have understood or global leaders have understood.”

The session, she said, is expected to result in two major decisions – one on economic development, with some other associated issues, and one on forest financing.

“I believe, after working in this area for 22 years, that we have perhaps the first glimmer of opportunity to take a major step to truly look at these issues and make decisions at this session of the United Nations Forum on Forests to better understand the connection between forests and economic development and the need for financing for forests.”