Arid zone forests are the “invisible” backbone of humanity’s food security today and must be protected according to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
One in every three plants under cultivation originated in arid zone forests. These include globally-consumed crops like wheat, barley, sorghum, corn, cabbage, potatoes and olives. Half of the world’s livestock lives off forests in these arid regions and a significant proportion of the 2 billion people who live in the world’s drylands directly depend on these forests for their day-to-day sustenance, energy and wood needs.
Forests in arid regions also play a vital role in supporting biodiversity and regulating the climate in these areas. They are inhabited by the world’s largest concentration of mammals and over 50,000 plant and 1,500 bird species. These factors make arid zone forests a vital resource in their own right and for the communities that live in and around them.
According to the UN, two policy failures in particular undermine the long-term sustainability of arid zone forests. First, the forests in these areas are undervalued and are often ‘invisible’ to policy makers, leading to them being overlooked in favour of other ecosystems. Second, policies that do focus on arid zone forests often fail to take into account that land, forests and water are all interlinked. Focussing on these components separately undermines the sustainability of all three.
In order to protect these vital resources, policy makers need to adopt new ways of thinking. First, focus should be placed on the causes, not symptoms, of their arid zone forest degradation. Second, policies regarding land, forest and water should be carefully co-ordinated. Third, dryland ecosystems should be given a proper economic value that must be recognised. Lastly, soil improvement should underpin policies relating to arid zone forests.
If these actions are taken soon we can ensure that these valuable ecosystems are available to support future generations just as they have done in the past. According to Luc Gnacadja, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification:
“Arid zone forests are the prototype of nature at humanity’s service, but are often taken for granted…Together we can improve the livelihoods of the communities affected by poverty, and eliminate a major cause of the degradation of the forest, water and land resources. Doing so would enhance food security and secure the resources in the drylands for posterity.”