Renewing forests for the people

Posted: 17 March 2003

Reviving deforested and degraded landscapes so that they benefit local communities is the aim of a new partnership between the World Conservation Union (IUCN), WWF, and the United Kingdom Forestry Commission.

The initiative - known as the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration - will be a "meeting point" for governments, communities and organisations interested in forest restoration activities that pave the way for sustainable development.

The front-runners include local farmers in Mexico, foresters in northern England, and Sukuma cattle-herdsmen in Tanzania. Also involved are oil palm companies and conservationists in Malaysian Borneo, global conservation organisations and governments. The idea is to learn from each other, as well as to identify new opportunities and partners in forest restoration..

"We keep hearing about the rapid loss and degradation of forests worldwide," says Stewart Maginnis, Head of the IUCN Forest Conservation Programme, "Yet we rarely grapple with how this affects the 1.8 billion people who depend on these forests and woodlands, where a healthy ecosystem means food, medicine and fuel. Denied the social safety nets that many in the rich world take for granted, the rural poor rely heavily on wild esources, which are often under threat.

"So when we restore an area, we must do more than plant trees. We must bring back forest goods and services to the people who depend on them, and this means being strategic about the mix of uses we promote in an area, from agriculture to forest regeneration."

IUCN's Maginnis said: "Restoration initiatives provide hope when they have both people and biodiversity needs in mind. OECD estimates that around $35 billion goes in subsidies to the forest industry each year. These subsidies seldom take into account environmental and social issues, and may have a perverse impact on them. If properly directed, this money is more thanenough to make sure our forests are restored to benefit both people and nature."

Big rewards

One example of the project is in the Shinyanga region of Tanzania. This used to be covered with dense acacia scrub and miombo woodland, but by 1985 much of the landscape had been transformed into semi-desert, due to felling of forests for a tsetse fly eradication scheme, as well as conversion of land to cash crops like cotton and rice, overgrazing, and a population relocation scheme.

Previous government initiatives to reduce animal herds and plant trees, often with exotic species, did little to halt the degradation of Shinyanga's forests, so when government field officers, in collaboration with IUCN, launched the Shinyanga Soil Conservation Programme (HASHI) in 1985 they asked the local people for their advice. Sukuma people suggested restoring the old ngitilis, or enclosures of wooded land..

It wasn't long before the ngitilis were transforming the lives of tens of thousands of people. Awareness raising, collaboration with traditional institutions and environmental committees, and training in how to manage ngitilis, by choosing native species on the right site, have brought big rewards.

There are now over 15,000 individual and 280 communal ngitilis covering around 70,000 hectares in 172 villages surveyed by HASHI in Shinyanga region. Assuming a similar pattern of woodland restoration in other villages - there are about 830 villages in the region - HASHI estimates that over 50,000 hectares of once degraded land have been restored.

To bring the Forest Landscape Restoration approach to a broader audience, the Partnership has started the Forest Restoration Information Service (FRIS) at FRIS