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Embracing Complexity in International Forest Governance: A Way Forward

This Policy Brief is based on the report “Embracing Complexity: Meeting the Challenges of International Forest Governance” – a Global Assessment Report published as IUFRO (International Union of Forest Research Organizations) World Series Volume 28, to be formally presented as part of the launch of International Year of Forests at the 9th Session of United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) taking place January 31, 2011, at the UN Headquarters in New York City.

This Policy Brief was compiled by the editors of the assessment report with the help of an advisory team. It summarizes the findings of a comprehensive assessment of scientific information about international forest governance carried out by an Expert Panel of over 30 of the world’s leading scientists working in the areas of environmental governance and international forest law. It aims to provide policy and decision makers with essential knowledge and building blocks required for a more effective and inclusive governance of the world’s forests.

About the Editors:

Jeremy Rayner, Chair, Expert Panel on International Forest Regime
Alexander Buck, IUFRO Executive Director
Pia Katila, Content Editor

Why does International Forest Governance Matter?

Forests Provide Many Benefits

Forests cover one-third of the earth’s landmass – just over four billion hectares. They are enormously diverse, especially in the tropics; collectively they contain the majority of the planet’s terrestrial species. The biodiversity of forests not only has potentially enormous economic value, it also has significant intrinsic and aesthetic value for people.

The importance of forests for people can hardly be exaggerated. More than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for subsistence, livelihoods and employment. Over 2 billion people – one-third of the world’s population – use firewood to cook and to heat their homes, and hundreds of millions of people rely on traditional medicines harvested in forests. In numerous developing countries, forest-based hunting and fishing supply essential dietary protein.

Forests also make important contributions to national and local economies. Wood removals from forests are worth about US $ 100 billion per year, and the value of the harvest of non-wood forest products is increasing. In 2009, the worldwide export value of timber products amounted to more than US $ 235 billion. In many developing countries, forest-based enterprises provide at least one-third of all rural non-farm employment.

Forests are a critical factor in climate change. The carbon stored in forest biomass, deadwood, litter and soil is estimated to be double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Forests provide a range of environmental services fundamental to people’s well-being and environmental sustainability. For example, they help stabilize soils, protect land from erosion by wind and water, and maintain a steady supply of clean water.

Forests are Under Threat

Yet forests are under threat. An estimated 13 million hectares are lost per year globally. Forest planting and the natural expansion of forests, mainly in Europe and Asia, partly compensate for this, but the net annual loss of forests is still more than 5 million hectares. Deforestation threatens the huge store of carbon in forests; it is responsible for an estimated 12–20% of global carbon emissions. Carbon stocks in forest biomass are decreasing by about 0.5 gigatonnes per year.

The majority of the world’s forests have been modified by human activities; only one-third remains as primary forests. Forest degradation threatens many of the values of forests – their capacity to produce goods and environmental services and to provide habitat for biodiversity, and their ability to support the livelihoods of forest-dependent people. The threat to forests could be exacerbated by climate change, which could lead to further degradation and loss.

Over the next 40 years, the world’s population will likely increase by 50% to around 9 billion people. By 2030, around 1.2 billion people in developing countries will enjoy middle-class lifestyles as a result of successful economic development policies, with increased consumption of meat and dairy products. Together with higher demand for biofuels, these developments are likely to expand the proportion of land devoted to agriculture at the expense of forests, especially in the tropics.

Continuing deforestation and degradation has many implications for the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest people, who are in danger of losing not only key environmental services but, in some cases, the very basis of their subsistence. Their response to these stresses is complex and remains poorly understood.

International Problems Require International Responses

Given the global nature of the problems associated with forests, an international response is required, but one that is more effective than in the past.

Governance for Complexity

The purpose of the report – “Embracing Complexity: Meeting the Challenges of International Forest Governance” – is to examine how international forest governance can be strengthened in the face of these threats. The complexity of the issues around forests gives rise to what are known as ‘wicked’ problems – problems that defy efforts to break them down into simpler, easier-to-solve components. A succession of approaches to deal with the wicked problems of forests has captured the attention of policymakers and a range of international institutions have been created. None has been able to deal effectively with the complexity of the issues involved. Competing interests and divergence over key ideas have stalled international negotiations on global forest governance for years. Efforts to bypass the stalemate by moving forest concerns into biodiversity or climate change fora and to create parallel civil society-led processes have created a correspondingly complex set of institutions. These complex arrangements are difficult to navigate and prone to produce further conflict and suboptimal outcomes.