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Lesson for Africa from UNESCO report on World Heritage forests

By Dr John Kakonge | Nov 12th 2021 | 4 min read

Alex Koech a member of the Ogiek community inspecting cedar posts at Kiptunga forest in Mau on March 7, 2018. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Forests are critical to the fight against climate change: the trees which form them are natural carbon sinks. Through photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air, which is then stored in their leaves, branches, trunks and roots.

A 2021 report by UNESCO, the World Resource Institute and IUCN has revealed, however, that World Heritage forests, which cover 69 million hectares, emitted more carbon than they captured between 2001 and 2020. This alarming trend was due to a variety of anthropogenic disturbances and pressures. Clearing of forest land for agriculture, illicit logging, severe periods of drought and extreme weather phenomena such as hurricanes all contributed to a reduction in forest size and the forests’ ability to sequester carbon. At the same time, the scale and severity of forest wildfires triggered a spike in atmospheric carbon emissions.

The findings in this report need to be seriously considered by countries with ambitious tree-planting programmes, especially those addressing forest cover loss.

The report recommends strong and sustained management and protection of forests through rapid and effective responses to help prevent fires and die-off from climate-related events, the implementation of support mechanisms that maximise interaction and connectivity of forests, and the integration of World Heritage Sites into programmes to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, and the sustainable development agenda.

The report, which was released to coincide with the ongoing COP26 in Glasgow, has a number of messages for developing countries.

First, countries with tree-planting programmes should not be discouraged but given strong political support. Fortunately, during COP26, more than 100 leaders, including US President Joe Biden, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, committed to end deforestation by 2030. They vowed to fight climate change, deliver resilient and inclusive growth, and halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation. These commitments must translate to action.

Second, the future focus should be on community forests. If communities are fully empowered, they will proactively safeguard and manage forests and reduce cost of hiring guards, and illicit logging. Forest fires will be minimised and controlled. For example, in Costa Rica, Central America, the government pays farmers to protect forests near their farms. The country is now one of the few to reverse deforestation, stop biodiversity loss and increase forest cover to more than half of its territory.

In Gabon, which is backed by the Central African Forest Initiative, nearly 90 per cent of the country is covered by forests, which capture more carbon than the country emits. Its national policies have reduced deforestation and continuously lowered carbon emissions.  In recognition of these efforts, Gabon is also the first country in Africa to receive results-based payments.

Last July, it received the first tranche of $17 million, part of a $150 million deal signed in 2019 to reduce carbon emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation.

Third, since most of the pressure on World Heritage forests originates outside their boundaries, where protection is weaker, an integrated approach must be adopted to landscape management, with the creation of ecological corridors and buffer zones to ensure forests’ ability to sequester and store carbon is preserved.

The idea of the buffer zones is also included in the guidelines for nomination and management of World Heritage forest sites.

Fourth, in addition, to monitoring carbon emissions from World Heritage forests, other forest areas at national and global levels must be analysed to determine whether they emit carbon or reduce carbon dioxide. This proposed study is timely, given the recent commitments by world leaders in Glasgow. The studies should be funded by the public and private sectors.

The final message is a call for aggressive public awareness-raising about the importance of forests. The world’s forests, especially those in the tropics (for example, in the Amazon and the Congo), are the lungs for humanity. They must be protected from destruction by unscrupulous and corrupt operators in search of profit.

Finland, a country with 70 per cent forest cover, should serve as a benchmark. The Finns perceive their forests as a living habitat, a resource and a source of inspiration, experience and knowledge. They provide an example on the way forward for other forested countries in the short, medium and long term.

Heritage forests will continue to be reliable carbon sinks if they are effectively protected from local and global threats. Actions to protect these forests require the mobilisation of all stakeholders, namely, governments, civil society, indigenous people, local communities and the private sector.

Forests are world’s lungs and the world must breathe to survive. To keep it breathing and to preserve its forests, Governments need money, knowledge, commitment and informed, effective and enforceable policies.

Dr Kakonge is a former Kenya Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN Office and WTO in Geneva. [email protected])

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