The proposed pledge to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 by 100 world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow, whose nations represent 85% of the earth’s forests, is based on proclamations that do not address the root causes of deforestation.
In reality, nations and organizations talk a good game about the service values a forest provides — water, climate mitigation, biodiversity conservation — but the direct monetary compensation governments are willing to provide to forest owners for these benefits is trivial compared to alternative use of the land after it is deforested. In addition, any government investment is likely to attract interest of elites and disenfranchise local peoples with traditional use rights, as happened with massive eucalyptus-planting programs in India.
To keep the COP26 commitments will require ground-level solutions that involve local people, land tenure, and markets.
Over 75% of the world’s forests are national or public resources, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. But today most forest resources are handed out by national governments via concession systems on time scales that provide little incentive for companies to manage the land sustainably for the long run. Indigenous and local people living within many such forests have traditional rights to the land not recognized by national governments, yet they often play an unrecognized role in forest protection.
Some regions (e.g., Latin America) have perverse systems of tenure dating from colonization that incentivize forest clearance for cattle ranching. In other cases, the use rights of traditional forest dwellers are ignored: seen as threats to those forests, they are in many cases their protectors. Forest dwellers have a uniquely strong ability to protect forests if they have unequivocal rights to their benefits. The truth of this is reflected in the stark contrast between intact Indigenous reserves and degraded public lands in the Brazilian Amazon.
Forests generally must have a monetary value that is at least as great as alternative land use. Market values for forest products need to be strong but equitable and the question of value for whom must be addressed. Forests are cleared for agricultural when non-local elites have the freedom to profit by converting the land.
Today’s native forests are now largely restricted to remote and marginal lands. Such forests generally do not have a singular dominant value, such as timber production. If landowners receive incentives from multiple income streams to keep these forests as forests, they can avoid the market volatility and the ecological fragility of monocrops.
Additionally, successful protection of forests often depends on strong tax incentives to protect forest and strict environmental laws. Lax enforcement is generally due to governments’ lack of ground personnel, infrastructure, and political will.
The answer to forest restoration and conservation requires more attention not to trees but to people, including their cultures, laws, markets, and regimes of tenure. You cannot plant a tree without first identifying the social niche in which to grow it and protect it. ‘Billion Tree” programs, which naively assume a flat, global landscape, without socio-economic difference or political conflict, may produce less forest cover not more. Once we realize that money alone cannot fix this problem, and that indeed money often is the problem, then much can be accomplished.
Mark Ashton/ Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology/ The Forest School at the Yale School of the Environment. Michael R. Dove Professor of Social Ecology/The Forest School at The Yale School of Environment/ Curator of Anthropology Peabody Museum.