DOHA (AlertNet) - Forests must be fully valued for their contribution to economic growth and social progress, and included in the next set of global development goals, experts and officials told a forest conference on Sunday.
Wu Hongbo, U.N. Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, said the inter-dependence of forests, agriculture, water, biodiversity and people's livelihoods make "forests part of the solution in meeting sustainable development challenges".
No specific targets were set for protecting forests in the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which note only that the rate of deforestation shows signs of decreasing, but is still alarmingly high.
The process for consultation on the goals that will replace the MDGs after 2015 - widely referred to as the Sustainable Development Goals - has only just begun. But they are likely to give greater prominence to forests.
"We do not know how the forest issue will be included, but certainly the importance of forests and sustainable forests will be covered," Hongbo told AlertNet.
The economic contribution of forests to developing countries is estimated to be six to eight times higher than official development assistance, but the non-cash benefits of forests are almost invisible in national accounting systems, Hongbo noted.
When forests are cleared with little regard for the people who live there, it is not only a question of losing natural resources, he added.
"If trees are cut down and people are dislocated - they have no place to live, they are driven out of their homes because of the environment - then it is a social problem," he said.
Ephraim Kamuntu, Uganda's minister for water and environment, told the Forest Day gathering - held alongside the U.N. climate talks in Qatar - that over 90 percent of Ugandans depend on fuel wood for energy. Forests also help replenish the water supplies on which people rely for farming, fishing and health, he added.
The real challenge in preventing deforestation is to link it with efforts to reduce poverty, he said - otherwise communities with no other source of income or fuel will not stop cutting down trees.
Uganda has made an effort to provide communities living near its 12 national forest parks with alternative revenue from tourism projects, he said. But he sidestepped a question about government approval for controversial sugar cane plantations in forest areas, which aid groups say have uprooted local people with little compensation.
REDD+ STILL UNDER NEGOTIATION
Kamuntu said he would like to see the Doha climate talks put forests at the centre of the development agenda.
"Forestry is linked to the life of present and future generations - so what effort can you now put on forest cover as a survival approach? If that message can go through, then it would be logically easy to get support for forest cover, but sometimes it is lost in disjointed analysis," he explained.
Hongbo said discussions at the U.N. negotiations would enhance awareness of the importance of forests for storing carbon and and reducing planet-warming emissions.
They would also raise the question of whether forestry and agriculture are conflicting interests, with farmers clearing ever more trees to grow crops, or whether they could work hand in hand to help humans secure enough food and stabilise the climate.
Peter Holmgren, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said negotiations on setting up a funding mechanism for the U.N.-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) scheme were moving forward at the climate talks, and would help contribute to forest communities' livelihoods once up and running.
Andreas Tveteraas, senior adviser to Norway's International Climate and Forest Initiative, which will provide NOK 3 billion ($530 million) for efforts to prevent deforestation in 2013, emphasised the need to stay focused on establishing large-scale, predictable REDD+ financing.
"That is one of the solutions to changing the logic of land use and it doesn't exist yet, and it is still going on in the negotiations," he noted. "When we have that, and while we experiment with that, we need to focus on the fact that REDD+ should be seen as part of national green growth strategies, where food production, livelihoods, job creation and so on are seen as one whole."
Will Steffen, executive director of the climate change institute at the Australian National University, argued that forests should also be valued for their role in stabilising the planet through keeping ecosystems functioning and fostering biodiversity, and not just for their climate change mitigation potential.
"You cannot offset fossil fuel emissions by trying to shove more carbon into forests," he said. "Forests can't take the pressure off fossil fuel emissions - scientifically, it doesn't work."