29 November 2012

An exciting Post-2015 Development Agenda. Is it time for trees?

By Dr. Philip Goodwin, Chief Executive, TREE AID

It appears we are entering a new and exciting phase in development. For over a decade, the Millennium Development Goals have provided a focus for all those working in development. As the first holistic strategy for addressing the world’s development needs, they have also provided an opportunity to evaluate successes and failures. 

This evaluation, three years from the deadline is sparking new debate and action across the globe. There has been success. Parity in primary education between girls and boys is happening. The target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water has been met. So too, has the goal of halving extreme poverty and hunger.

But what does that actually mean? 

According to FAO General Director Jose Graziana Da Silva the overall number of hungry people may be decreasing slowly in the world, but not in Africa. Here the number of hungry has gone up in the last 20 years - from 175 million in 1990 to 239 million, figures included in this year's The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report.

It is this issue that has seen an increased and timely focus on the role trees play beyond that of carbon catchers and nurturers of the environment. Joining the post-2015 debate means that the role trees can play in ending poverty and hunger can now be explored.

In Africa, it is no coincidence that incidences of drought and famine are taking place in areas where efforts to slow rates of deforestation have failed – or that such events are increasing in frequency. Loss of trees clearly leads to increased vulnerability to climate change and erratic weather patterns for those living there. It also leads to the loss of vital sources of food and income, and therefore opportunities to break free from poverty.

Malava, Kenya
'Conventional' crops are often not indigenous, and can require expensive inputs, significant irrigation and land preparation in order to produce a successful harvest. Trees on the other hand often survive when other crops fail. Commonly seen by smallholder farmers as 'famine foods', tree foods form a significant part of daily diets across rural Africa, providing fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, sepals and even sap, which can all be used as high nutrient food.

The Thiombiana family, from Burkina Faso recently told me how they “escaped starvation”during this year’s food shortages in the country as a result of eating baobab leaves and fruit, and because of the income they were generating through the sale of tree foods when the in families granary was empty.

This existing, localised ‘emergency relief’, is what the international community must seek to strengthen. To do so, it must listen to the men and women on the ground, to the community groups to which they belong – and to the local government representatives that provide the bridge between them and the rest of the country.

Such an approach has seen Ghana and Burkina Faso receive endorsement of their far-reaching plans for sustainably managing their forest sectors as part of their goals for climate-resilient economic development earlier this month. Pitched as a “catalytic investment in an all-important sector for both sustainable development and climate change,” this is forestry that considers the interests of local communities’.

Crucially the research is there to back it up – research that the new Director General of the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Peter Holmgren, recently wrote about in an article for the Guardian. “Scaling up sustainability: time for forestry to come out of the forest” discusses how food security is an area where, previously, conservation and human development agendas have been framed as opponents.

Yet, results released from a six-year study by the CIFOR, show that forest income, on average, constitutes more than one-fifth of total household income for people living in or near forests. This includes income from wood for fuel and construction, bushmeat, edible and medicinal plants. Forest products also contribute significantly to global business and trade; wood and non-wood forest products constitute 4% of global trade in commodities. 

The role trees play protecting the environment, increasing biodiversity, improving crop production and diversifying food supplies, combined with their ability to provide a viable case for economic development, sees many of the boxes needed for ending poverty and hunger ticked. 

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recently announced his plans for a "Zero Hunger Challenge" that links the achievement of food security to the elimination of hunger and poverty through sustainable production and increased small-scale productivity.

Trees, as an integral part of agricultural systems, need to be part of the solution.

A new World Bank report,“Forest Trees and Woodlands in Africa” agrees, citing that Africa’s forests have often been narrowly viewed as a source of export revenues from industrial timber and a global public good. When in reality, forests play much broader roles, as diverse sources of jobs and livelihoods and as providers of valuable ecosystem services that are vital for increasing economic and social resilience – including combating climate change.

In the words of Jamal Saghir, World Bank Director for Sustainable Development in the Africa Region, “The objective of sustainable management of forests, trees and woodlands in Africa can best be met by taking a fresh approach that recognizes the diverse roles that forests play, both in nurturing peoples’ lives and nature.”

The UN has recently named Prime Minister, David Cameron, as co-chair of a panel set to for advise the global development agenda beyond 2015. TREE AID wants trees to be firmly on that agenda. www.treeaid.org.uk