Researchers identify global mega-trends that impact forest health – and the communities who rely on them

Forests are essential to our attempts to tackle climate change, reduce biodiversity loss and live more sustainably — and yet they are being significantly impacted by everything from major infrastructure projects to expanding middle classes, potentially undermining efforts to tackle the current environmental emergency.

In an important step towards better understanding the dynamics which affect forest health, a group of researchers and practitioners have used advanced analytical tools to identify five major trends currently impacting forests on a global scale.

Breaking from previous research which has tended to focus on local drivers on forest health, the study paints a complex picture in which consumption in North America and Europe is driving deforestation, land-use change and environmental degradation in the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Indonesia – all areas which are home to Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Meanwhile smoke from forest fires can impact the health of populations in neighbouring countries and even the weather patterns of other continents.

The study, and the so-called “horizon scanning” approach it uses, offers a better chance of understanding the diverse and often global pressures being exerted on the world’s last remaining great forests, as well as developing approaches which can support sustainable forest livelihoods at a local level, helping to shape a more sustainable global relationship with nature.

" the requirement for functioning governance and decision-making systems only increases with increased demand/pressure on resources. Local institutions need to be recognised and given space in national and regional planning and policy making"

- Margareta Nilsson, Head of Programmes, the Tenure Facility

Within this, the need to secure tenure for forest-dwelling communities and ensure responsible management of forestlands have been identified as crucial steps, according to Margareta Nilsson, who co-authored the report, and is the Tenure Facility’s Head of Programmes.

“One conclusion from the study is how the requirement for functioning governance and decision-making systems only increases with increased demand/pressure on resources. Local institutions need to be recognised and given space in national and regional planning and policy making”, Nilsson said.

“Having your rights recognized is always the better starting-point when global trends are impacting your lands and resources.”

Within the research, five key mega-trends were identified in the study as being especially impactful on forest health:

  • Major forest disturbances such as wildfires, floods and tree mortality, often linked to human-influenced climate change. Forest destruction is not only harmful for biodiversity, it can also increase the risks of zoonotic disease transmission.
  • Migration and demographic shifts, which are seeing large numbers of working age men moving to cities, effectively “feminising” the rural landscape.
  • Emerging middle classes in lower income countries are pushing up demand for forest commodities — including palm oil and meat — placing greater pressure on forests, whilst unhealthy processed diets are endangering both people and the environment
  • The rise of technology is creating opportunities for forest-dwelling communities, offering better communications and better data-collecting potential. However, they can also be used to drive illegal logging and other activities.
  • Large-scale infrastructure development, including the construction of millions of kilometres of road in the coming decades and the emergence of mining and hydroelectric projects, will speed forest loss, displace forest-dwelling communities, and drive conflict.

Researchers hope that further study of these major trends could help lead to a better understanding of the causality behind forest destruction and biodiversity loss, which could in turn inform more nuanced policymaking to ensure both that forests are conserved, rights respected and that the livelihoods that depend upon them are protected.

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