Last week, a group of around 30 made a transect from West to East across Sumatra, Indonesia, to learn about forests, trees, landscapes, and the people whose livelihoods depend on them. We were often shocked by what we saw. After camping overnight in Tesso Nilo National Park, Riau province, we lumbered slowly on the backs of elephants through tracts of newly logged and burned forest land, some planted with rubber, and learned that over half the park area of 83,000 hectares was encroached and deforested. Tesso Nilo has the highest biodiversity index for vascular plants in the world, and is the last remaining habitat in Riau for elephants and the Sumatran tiger. With their habitat shrinking, elephants often stray into surrounding villages, causing significant economic damage. Villagers retaliate by poisoning the elephants. With support from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Indonesia, an elephant ‘flying patrol’ has been established within the park, staffed by skilled mahouts who have trained six elephants to help chase wild elephants away from villages and back to the park, thereby reducing conflict with the local population.
After Agriculture Day, comes Forest Day for about 1,200 scientists, donors, NGOs, policymakers, journalists and climate negotiators gathered in Durban, with its own well-oiled choreography of plenary sessions and discussion forums.
My assigned role during these two days is to act as a go-between and help break down the silo mentality that can affect expert communities working on narrow themes. Many people already seem to be reading from the same music sheet –there is growing recognition that the fate of forests and agriculture are intricately linked.
Agriculture (large and small) is one of the main drivers of deforestation and forest degradation in many parts of the world. And growing needs for food, energy and income will continue to exert tremendous pressure on the forest “frontier” in the future.
Forestry and agriculture experts concerned by climate change seem to be reaching for broadly symbiotic solutions at the landscape level – climate-smart programs based on a more complete understanding of the carbon and water cycles that sustain both agriculture and forests.
Forest Day, now in its fifth year, always timed to coincide with UNFCCC talks, can take great credit for publicizing carbon emission research and putting forests on the map of climate change negotiations.
A year-long drought has transformed farmers into full-time charcoal burners in the part of Eastern Kenya I visited last week. Delayed rains have also had an impact on farmers in greener parts of the country where land degradation and over-exploited soils are dragging yields down.
But the story that emerges from this man-altered landscape is not all bleak. A range of actors, energized by the food and climate crisis, are taking measures to restore the balance between productive land use and functioning ecosystems, in ways that enhance the resilience of both.
Kenya's parliament recently requested that farmers put 10% of their farmland under tree cover. Rwanda announced in February a program to reverse the degradation of its soil, water, land and forest resources by 2035. Development partners like the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility have invested millions of dollars in improving the management of ecosystems to protect livelihoods, biodiversity, water access, and other vital services. The World Resources Institute has painstakingly mapped over 450 million hectares of degraded forest landscapes in Africa that could be restored (See map). In fact, the urge to heal the planet's sores has given birth to a booming ecosystem of NGOs, partnerships, social enterprises and research initiatives that build on each others' successes and share a broad vision for positive change.
We know how to triple maize yields using fertilizer trees. We know how to harvest water, slow erosion and store carbon. We even know how to get more milk out of cows by feeding them leaves from trees that stock carbon, provide firewood, fix nitrogen and retain soil moisture – in a changing climate! All the while, those practices help farmers feed their families, attract wildlife, build assets and pay for school fees...
So why is this kind of "infinite win" work not happening on a more meaningful scale? The organizers of a three-day Investment Forum on Mobilizing Private Investment in Trees and Landscape Restoration in Africa this week in Nairobi are hoping to lift the veil on some of the constraints to sustainable tree-based investment and provoke more synergies between public and private interests.
Many on this blog have written about the triple win of improved livelihoods, increased climate resilience and carbon capture. That vision of climate-smart agriculture and sustainable forest management is one of hope and necessity against a backdrop of food price volatility and climate extremes. Last week I was able to spend time studying the said “backdrop” – in the Eastern province of Kenya, where farmers who have last seen rain in March 2010 are cutting down trees to survive.
I spoke to farmers in Mboti, a community of about 100 families scattered in a world of thorny white bushes, red earth and isolated trees. Even in good times, they are brave people living on rain-fed agriculture in a region that gets much less average precipitation than Kenya's lush and populous highlands. They live on the edge – coexisting and sometimes competing with nomadic herders for salty water drawn from boreholes, one jerrycan at a time.
But the farmers' endurance has been stretched to the limit. The heavy rains of November didn't materialize (it drizzled) and the April showers never did either. Priscilla Mwangangi, a 60 year-old widow, plowed her fields this spring hoping she could sow millet and sorghum, but instead spends her time minding a mound of charcoal which she feeds by chopping down acacia trees around her property. One big bag of charcoal sells for 400 Kenyan shillings – about $5.
Esta tarde llegué a Cancún. El sol brilla. El mar es azul. El hotel Moon Palace –sede de las negociaciones– es un hermoso centro vacacional con playa propia de un kilómetro de extensión y arena blanca. Se insta a evitar el uso de chaqueta y corbata y muchos delegados visten las tradicionales guayaberas mexicanas.
Los anfitriones han hecho un excelente trabajo de diplomacia y logística en la preparación de este evento. ¿Por qué parece, entonces, que los turistas lo están disfrutando más que los representantes de los países participantes?
Porque nadie sabe cuáles serán los resultados. Cada uno de los presentes cree que otra persona debería proponer algo más y algunos lo están expresando con mucho sentimiento. Se ha ido el entusiasmo por un posible acuerdo forjado en Copenhague el año pasado. No hay en el horizonte un jonrón, una clavada, ni un hoyo en uno a la vista. La analogía ahora pertenece al fútbol americano: se trata de hacer avanzar el balón con paciencia por el campo de juego con la esperanza de marcar un tanto el año próximo, el siguiente o dentro de cinco años. Sobre todo, no hay que dejar caer la pelota para no perder terreno rápidamente.