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Forests and Agriculture in the world in 2016 : the land-use challenges and opportunities.

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Context - Forest and agriculture are often at odds when it comes to using land.

How can an integrated approach to land management help meeting the needs of the world’s growing population?

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2016 by the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO): " State of the World’s Forests 2016. Forests and agriculture: land-use challenges and opportunities" 

  • Source document:FAO (2016)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 2 February 2018

1. The link between forests and food security

The world’s population is increasing, and meeting the needs of everyone is a challenge. Accordingly, there is a need for a globally integrated approach and in 2015 the UN leaders adopted a series of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 as a plan for action for people, the planet, and prosperity1.

More than just trees, forests are fundamental for food security and improved livelihoods. Forests can increase the resilience of communities by providing food, wood energy, shelter, fodder and fiber, as well as by generating income and employment to allow communities and societies to prosper, and finally by harboring biodiversity. They can support sustainable agriculture and human well-being by stabilizing soils and climate, and by regulating water flows.

Forests can help address the challenges brought by climate change and, properly managed, forests can have an important role in absorbing carbon while providing other environmental services.

This report explores the challenges and opportunities represented by the complex interrelationship between forests, agriculture and sustainable development.

2. How are forests doing in the world?

Some estimates suggest that over the last 5000 years, the surface covered by forests declined by 1.8 billion hectares, that is about half of the total area of forests today. Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that much of this forest loss was associated with population increases and demand for land, crops and grazing, as well as with unsustainable levels of exploitation of forest resources, for instance for fuel or shipbuilding.

The conversion of forest land to agricultural use remains the main driver of deforestation. Underlying factors affecting forest conversion include population growth, agricultural development, land tenure, governance of land-use changes, changing markets, technological improvements, and active policy interventions.

More specifically, in the 19th and 20th century, expansion of agricultural land remained the main driver of deforestation, together with the expansion of cities and the development of infrastructure and mining. Global forest area has declined by 129 million hectares (3.1 %) in the period 1990 to 2015 and is now just under 4 billion hectares. Although the rate of global net forest loss slowed down from an average of 7.3 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 3.3 million hectares per year in 2010–2015, deforestation remains a matter of deep concern.

In tropical regions more specifically, over the 2000-2010 period there was a net loss of 7 million hectares of forests per year and a growth of agricultural land by 6 million hectares per year :

  • In southeast Asia, oil-palm plantations have replaced substantial areas of natural forests;
  • In Africa it is the small-scale, subsistence farming that is the dominant driver of deforestation. In poorer countries, the increase of land area dedicated to agriculture was mainly driven by population increase in rural areas
  • In boreal and temperate regions, there was a net growth of forests during that period, which was partly due to the expansion of forests into abandoned rangeland and farm land in regions that were part of the former Soviet union.
  • In Europe, North America and North East Asia, there were net gains in forest and net losses in agricultural area. Contributing factors include reduced pressure on forests as a result of economic growth, declining rural populations or improved agricultural productivity as well as effective policies aiming at expanding forest area.

3. How can forests and agriculture grow together?

Halting the loss of forests will benefit hundreds of millions of people, in particular many of the world’s poorest people, whose livelihoods depend on forest goods and environmental services. It will also help combat climate change, protect habitats for 75% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and maintain ecosystem resilience, thereby supporting a (more) sustainable agriculture.

Adjusting support means for commercial agriculture by introducing environmental safeguards, such as cross-compliance measures, can help avoid forest loss, especially in those countries where largescale agricultural subsidies have had a significant impact on deforestation. According to th report, private governance has become more prominent in promoting sustainable land use, with an increasing number of private companies voluntarily committing to eliminate deforestation practices from their supply chains.

There is also a need to improve coordination between policies on forests with those on agriculture, food, land use, rural and national development. For example, agriculture policies should be more explicit about the potential implications of food production strategies for forests and sustainable land management. Several case studies highlighted the importance of recognizing, in wider national economic development, rural development, and poverty reduction strategies, the value of forests together with the importance of agriculture and food security.

4. Are these conditions for joint growth of forest and agricultural areas encountered in practice?

Despite the fact that these challenges are all global and worldwide priorities, the analysis of policy documents available suggests that, at the national level, decisions on land use and natural-resource priorities are not always addressed in an integrated way.

The case studies in various countries revealed more particularly the importance of the four common themes that need to be combined:

  1. Favorable economic conditions in a market-oriented agricultural policy that includes social and environmental safeguards;
  2. An effective legal and institutional framework of right policy instruments that consider the agriculture and forest sectors in a balanced way to increase agricultural productivity and promote sustainable forest management, while recognizing the full economic, social and environmental benefits of forests;
  3. Devolving in this context forest management rights to local communities, and promoting integrated land use;
  4. Ensuring an adequate funding for implementation of these policies.

The report also underlines that a comprehensive and exhaustive legal and regulatory framework cannot, in itself, prevent illegal forest conversion. While clear procedures and mechanisms are essential, they are of little value if they are unenforced or ineffectively implemented.

Thus, the challenge today is to encourage positive trends recorded in some countries - especially low-income countries - in which food insecurity is still rife and where forests are still being lost.


Themes covered
Publications A-Z

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