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For years, it has been a bit of conventional wisdom among researchers and development experts: The loss of ecosystem services, especially those provided by forests, will have a profound impact on the poor, as deforestation and forest degradation decrease human well-being.
The problem? First, the evidence suggests something else is going on: As forest cover continues to degrade and to disappear, the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index has been rising consistently around the globe. Second, tree cover is actually increasing in rural and agricultural landscapes, even as global forest cover declines.
What accounts for this seeming contradiction, and why is it happening?
Peter Dewees, forests adviser to the World Bank, said the increase in agricultural tree cover represents adaptation “on a grand scale” with major implications for policymaking, and called for researchers to fill in key gaps in data — and to rethink old research paradigms on forests, trees and land use.
Increases in rural and agricultural tree cover are “happening everywhere,” Dewees said in a keynote address last month at the Third IUFRO Latin American Congress. From Africa to Latin America to South Asia, he said, trees are being used to boost nutrient cycling, increase fruit consumption, bolster household income, build resilience to environmental and economic shocks, and even to demarcate field boundaries.
Dewees gave numerous examples. Inventories of trees in numerous villages in Niger in the past 25 years soared, dramatically raising millet and sorghum yields. Landscape restoration in China during that same period led to thousands of square kilometers of barren land being replanted with trees.
In Zambia, researchers in field trials planted Faidherbia trees, a relative of the acacia tree, in proximity to maize fields. After these trees — an inexpensive, low-maintenance input – were intercropped with maize, yields soared.
“What we are seeing,” Dewees said, “is an adaptation to the loss of ecosystem services on a grand scale, with profound impacts on poverty.”
Scaling up these sorts of adaptations could result in millions of tons of extra produce and extra income, to say nothing of carbon sequestration (the capture and storage of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere): The expansion of Faidherbia-like tree systems to an additional 5 million hectares, Dewees said, could capture an extra 30 million to 50 million tons of carbon annually.
The World Bank’s Program on Forests (PROFOR), in partnership with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), is currently undertaking research to improve understanding of the role of forests in improving the climate resilience of other sectors, including agriculture.
Scaling up will require policy changes, and this will require not just more and better data — Dewees cited numerous challenges and shortcomings in data sets used for this purpose — but also new ways of thinking about land use.
Too often, he said, research paradigms have focused solely on forests rather than on the landscapes in which forests, woodlands and trees reside. New ways of looking at land use would “better recognize the complexities of land use systems and the ecosystem services which support them,” he said.
For further information on the issues discussed in this article, please contact Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez at firstname.lastname@example.org