Safeguarding forests in the post COVID-19 recovery phase


Strengthening legality and sustainability to address COVID-19’s effects on deforestation at FAO COVID-19 Forestry Webinar Week

The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic pose an unprecedented challenge to virtually every aspect of society, including not only human health but also the economy and the environment. The impacts on forests, in particular, have implications for climate change. At a time of uncertainty and sweeping economic disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a reinforced, concerted global effort is more crucial than ever to maintain countries’ commitments to achieving national and international targets. Maintaining and expanding focus on these commitments at a time of increased pressure on forest resources can help not only to address deforestation but also to protect livelihoods, to generate income and to secure a sustainable future.

Restrictions on movements as well as changes in global market trends are affecting the production and trade of timber goods, especially for tropical timber producing countries which often rely heavily on the export market for high value products. Micro, small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) risk being the hardest hit, as they have lower capacity to delay their spending without earnings.

Physical restrictions threaten to reduce the presence of the law enforcement officers and independent forest monitors on the ground. Loss of employment in urban areas has seen thousands of people returning to rural areas. Governments resources are stretched in efforts to cope with the unexpected effects of the crisis, and ongoing or pending sector legislation can stall, to the detriment of decades of progress. These factors can create and exacerbate the potential for land tenure conflicts, land grabbing and illicit practices, as more and more people turn to forests for immediate solutions to support their livelihoods.

From 22 to 25 June 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) organized a  COVID-19 Forestry Webinar Week  under the theme “Building back better: COVID-19 Pandemic recovery contributions from the forest sector.” The FAO REDD+ and FAO EU-FLEGT programmes co-organized a technical session entitled “COVID-19’s effects on deforestation and possible responses through strengthening legality and sustainability.” The session, which gathered about 300 participants, discussed some of the challenges countries face to halt deforestation amidst the pandemic, and how to shape a green recovery that capitalizes on significant advances made to combat illegal logging and deforestation, supports communities and small enterprises to participate in legal and sustainable forest value chains and contributes to ambitious climate change commitments.

Opening the event, Malgorzata Buszko-Briggs, Senior Forestry Officer and FAO’s REDD+ Team Leader, highlighted some of the deforestation risks exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and drew attention to the need to leverage all available tools to enable a green recovery. “Integrating climate and forest agendas in financial stimulus packages and using existing frameworks, such as REDD+, will be central to rebuilding a post-pandemic world,” she stated.

It is key that the aid and stimulus packages being prepared to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic are designed to shape a “green recovery” that incorporates the contribution of standing forests to the national economy. At a minimum, the design and implementation of stimulus packages should safeguard against deforestation, support the most vulnerable - including forest-dependent communities - and continue to contribute to climate change mitigation.

Highlighting the current realities created by the dual crises – COVID-19 and climate change – Chile’s High-Level Climate Action Champion and special guest speaker, Gonzalo Muñoz, stressed the importance of listening to climate science which clearly shows that human health can only be guaranteed if natural ecosystems are protected, sustainably managed and restored. While preliminary research indicates that significant biodiversity loss results in a greater transmissibility of human diseases, the world is experiencing a substantial increase in zoonosis, including SARS, Ebola, Lyme and COVID-19. As a response, “Nature-based solutions will offer cross-cutting answers that can positively affect every sector of our economy. Forests, agriculture and oceans need to be included in both NDCs and in post COVID-19 recovery plans in order to ensure a better world,” Mr Muñoz noted.

Furthermore, promoting the rights of forest communities in reducing their vulnerability to the economic impacts of COVID-19 will be instrumental. To address the needs of communities and discourage illicit practices in forest areas of Colombia, the country has recently amended Acuerdo 058 de 2018, which allows the formalization of agreements or contracts of sustainable use in forest reserves for forest communities. The objective of the agreement is to legitimize and protect the communities by providing them with a way to generate income through sustainable forest use. At the session, Edgar Emilio Rodriguez Bastidas, Director of Forests, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development emphasized that the new legislation will not only legitimize forest communities, providing them with a way to generate income through sustainable forest use, but also ultimately protect forests. Dr Bastidas also underlined the high-level commitment to combating deforestation in Colombia, including the establishment of a multi-sectoral “Consejo Nacional de Lucha contra la Deforestación,” led by the President.

Moderating the session, Serena Fortuna, FAO Forestry Officer, reiterated the importance of embedding forest legality and sustainability considerations in recovery efforts, especially considering that sustainably managed forests offer key opportunities in generating employment, enhancing livelihoods and tackling climate change.

In Ghana, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the country’s forestry sector have particularly distrupted businesses that rely on export markets due to the boomerang effect of importers cancelling contracts. Speaking from Ghana, Chris Beeko, Director of the Timber Validation Department of Ghana’s Forestry Commission noted the decline in export revenue, temporary scaling down targets on forest plantations, restrictions on movement of labour and stalled forest protection activities. The challenge in the post-COVID-19 period will be to “keep harvesting within prescribed levels, preserving protected areas and maintaining benefits to local, forest-dependent communities,” he noted.  Provisions made within the framework of the country’s Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), such as continuing to implement the Timber Legality Assurance System, and the maintain channels of communication open with different stakeholders using well-established multi-stakeholder platforms, is more relevant than ever.

David Ganz, Executive Director of RECOFTC, stressed the importance of investing in forest communities and small enterprises to strengthen existing local institutions, ensuring that they are inclusive and well connected in order to tackle current and emerging challenges. He pointed to a number of ways in which organizations can invest in forest communities to increase their resilience to the crisis, including the diversification of forest products to reduce the reliance on timber, whilst simultaneously diversifying buyers and branding products and services from forests and their communities. It is essential to continue to build the capacity of forest communities to sustainably produce value-added timber products, certified as deforestation free, and the legality of which is verified, for example, through timber legality assurance systems of FLEGT VPAs.

In order to design suitable recovery programmes, a first step is to garner a detailed understanding of the effect of the pandemic on the lives of forest communities. To this effect, RECOFTC is working with the FAO-EU FLEGT Programme to document the impacts of COVID-19 in seven countries, including but not limited to the Lower Mekong, where a new initiative under the UN-REDD Programme is starting up and aims to bring legality and governance to the forefront. “Ensuring the legality and sustainability of forest value chains is an essential component of any recovery strategy—not only for the forest communities, but for all of society,” Mr Ganz concluded.

In recent years, tropical countries have made great advances in reducing both illegal logging and deforestation by improving forest governance, increasing transparency, strengthening forest monitoring and establishing multi-stakeholder platforms. However, the severe economic situation and confinement conditions associated with the pandemic could reverse much of that progress.

Multi-stakeholder dialogues are more important than ever in addressing the needs of the forest sector and the people who depend on it. Trust between governments and communities is critical in the post pandemic recovery phase, especially considering that alternative means of income generation need to be provided to the most vulnerability communities.

In her closing remarks, Daphne Hewitt, FAO-EU FLEGT Programme Manager and Senior Forestry Officer, reflected on the importance of the REDD+ Team and FAO-EU FLEGT Programme, in supporting countries in the COVID-19 economic recovery processes, based on longstanding experience of country support and advice needed to ensure legality and sustainability in efforts to curtail deforestation. In the future, “It is essential that we make good use of available science and data to address the dual crises and seize opportunities,” Ms Hewitt stated.

The use of data and science is key in identifying innovative solutions to COVID-19, climate change and sustainable forest management and to ensure that recovery efforts in other sectors do not accelerate deforestation. Such solutions need to be central to economic recovery and can be used to support the integration of forests in recovery packages and green development going forward. Strong systems to monitor forests have been developed and piloted, through VPAs with national timber legality assurance systems, and through REDD+ for monitoring forest cover.

In order to achieve ambitious climate commitments, the continued fight against climate change should be considered in the design of countries’ policy and investment responses to the COVID-19 in a way that they are transformative, and lead to a paradigm shift away from unsustainable development patterns. This should include efforts to halt deforestation and reduce forest degradation, strengthening legality, mobilizing carbon investments as well as redirecting conventional investments into deforestation-free production and consumption systems.

Responses to COVID-19 and climate change can be used to translate challenges into vehicles for transformation, driving economic and behavioral change. The key role of forests in increasing resilience and ensuring income generation and employment, particularly for vulnerable rural population needs to be recognized. In the post-COVID-19 world, governments, civil society, private sector actors and international organizations will need to take collective action to build back better and transform incentives to promote legal and sustainable timber production and trade. If stimulus packages are used to invest in forest protection, sustainable forest enterprises, or forest restoration, keeping in mind also the need to benefit women and other marginalized groups, there could be win-win situations for local employment, forests, and the climate.

The recording of the session is available here.


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