There are currently various ambitious global goals for forest conservation and restoration. One such example is the Bonn Challenge, which – having been recently endorsed by the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration – is a global aspiration to undertake forest restoration on 350 million hectares of land by 2030. Another example is the Trillion Trees campaign coordinated by the international NGO sector, which has a vision for a trillion trees to be restored, saved from loss and better protected around the world by 2050.
At present, there are about 500 million small farms in the Global South, which comprises the majority of the world’s poorest people. The degradation of ecosystems affects the wellbeing of about 3.2 billion people, and the resulting loss of species and ecosystem services costs about 10% of annual global gross product.
In areas with high population density and intensive land use, mosaic restoration opportunities encompass larger areas and utilize a combination of interventions that are spatially mixed with agricultural and other land uses. Mosaic restoration opportunities are widespread and comprise 80 percent of the opportunities within tropical regions. These interventions can include agroforestry; increasing tree cover on farms through planting or assisted natural regeneration; protective forests on steep slopes and riverbanks, or assisted natural regeneration in patches, corridors, or buffer zones. In this context, smallholder reforestation promises to be an important use of land for the provision of both environmental and human benefits in the tropics.
After some decades of international public policy advocating for the intensification of agricultural production, the world has seen a massive adoption and implementation of monocultures, plantations and industrial agriculture and forestry systems. Sadly, this industrial model has proven to be very inefficient, and has created environmental tragedies (such as biodiversity loss, land degradation, deforestation and water pollution) as well as inequalities and social injustices around the world. Under current population densities, some traditional production systems, such as slash and burn, are not viable. However, other traditional techniques such as crop diversification, agroforestry, cover crops, crop rotations and associations, mulching and composting are viable and more efficient than the industrial models based on external synthetic inputs, homogenization and land concentration. It’s clear that there are no silver bullets, but a combination of approaches respecting local contexts and people are better than a ubiquitous industrial model.
Planting trees on farms and integrating them into production systems increases fertility, controls soil erosion, diversifies risks, sinks carbon, increases food security and improves the livelihoods of millions of rural households. Trees are not mutually exclusive from successful farming. On the contrary, they are one of the best options to create wealth in rural contexts. During my professional career I have worked with and studied hundreds of smallholder farms, and I have witnessed families losing their entire crop yield (in a bad season) whilst continuing to harm the environment – as well as their own health – using the industrial model. I have also had the privilege of working together with hundreds of smallholder farmers that have chosen to diversify their farms and include trees in their production systems. I have seen whole communities transform their relationship with nature from exploitation to nurturing and lift themselves out of poverty.
Evidence of the ways in which smallholder livelihoods influence, and are influence by, this transition have been increasingly recognised. However, decisions on public policies that can facilitate, incentivise or discourage growing trees and transition to sustainability are often taken far away from the target areas and with the communities impacted by such decisions. The lack of consultation with local communities and the lack of use of local knowledge in decisionmaking processes often leads to the wrong decisions, in which subsidies and incentives are allocated to production systems that are harmful for the environment and create poverty.
ITF has a long-standing tradition of supporting communities’ initiatives, as well as involving the local people, their interests and wellbeing – which, in turn, has given ground to impactful, sustainable projects. It is together that we can restore and protect our forests. Transitioning to production systems that include trees – and including the local communities’ interests, knowledge and wellbeing – are vital if we are to create a better chance of conserving the environment and creating economic opportunities for some of the world’s poorest populations.
Ricardo Romero is ITF's Programmes Manager.