UN agency urges stronger focus on potential of forests to reduce poverty, spur green development

23 June 2014

Across the world, forests provide employment, energy, nutritious foods and a wide range of other goods and ecosystem services with tremendous potential to contribute to sustainable development and a greener economy, according to the United Nations agency report The State of the World’s Forests (SOFO).

“This 2014 edition of SOFO focuses on the socioeconomic benefits derived from forests. It is impressive to see how forests contribute to basic needs and rural livelihoods. They are also a carbon sink, and preserve biodiversity,” said José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

However, the report finds that these socioeconomic benefits are rarely fully recognized in national policies – despite their enormous potential to contribute to their vital role in providing local communities with food, energy and shelter.

“Let me say this clearly: we cannot ensure food security or sustainable development without preserving and using forest resources responsibly,” Mr. da Silva maintained.

Opening the 22nd Session of the FAO Committee on Forestry (COFO), the agency asserted in a press release that a significant proportion of the world’s population relies on forest products to meet basic needs for energy, shelter and some aspects of primary healthcare – often to a very high degree.

Yet according to SOFO, clear evidence has been lacking, “Evidence is critical to inform policies on forest management and use, and to ensure that the benefits from forests are recognized in the post-2015 development agenda – not only with respect to the environment but for their contributions to broader social issues as well.”

FAO’s new report stresses that providing local communities with access to forests and markets are powerful ways of enhancing their socioeconomic benefits and reducing poverty in rural areas.

“Countries should shift their focus, both in data collection and policymaking, from production to benefits – in other words, from trees to people,” said FAO Assistant Director-General for Forests, Eduardo Rojas-Briales.

“Policies and programmes, both in the forest sector and beyond, must explicitly address the role of forests in providing food, energy and shelter. A new, holistic concept of forests will make them more attractive to donors and investors and ensure that they benefit all people, especially those most in need,” he adds.

The essential role of forests in food security is also often overlooked. For example, policy makers have failed to notice wood as a major source of household energy. In many developing countries, it is often the only accessible and affordable fuel for the majority of people, with one in three households using wood as their main cooking fuel.

“Wood provides over half of the total energy supply in 29 countries, including 22 in Africa. In Tanzania, wood fuel accounts for about 90 per cent of total national energy consumption,” notes the report.

Much needs to be done to improve wood energy production, make it more sustainable and to reduce the burden on women and children, who collect 85 per cent of all firewood used in homes.

The report revealed that at least 1.3 billion people, or 18 per cent of the world's population, live in houses built of wood. This is particularly important in less-developed countries, where forest products are usually more affordable than other building materials. The production of building materials, wood energy and non-wood forest products employs at least 41 million people in the "informal" sector worldwide, three times the number of people employed in the formal forest sector.

In addition, forests perform many essential environmental services, such as erosion control, pollination, natural pest and disease control, and climate-change mitigation, as well as provide numerous social and cultural services and nutrients to local communities all year round.

Opening Committee, FAO signed a four-year agreement with AgriCord to collaborate with the Forest and Farm Facility – a partnership between FAO, the International Institute for Environment and Development and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUNCN), which aims to strengthen forest and farm producer organizations.

FAO will address these and other important issues at the joint World Health Organization WHO-FAO global intergovernmental conference on nutrition ICN2, to be held in Rome on 19-21 November 2014.

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