No time to lose
An area roughly the size of Portugal was estimated to have been destroyed by wildfires in 2021.
In a Q&A with Aether, Dr Ismahane Elouafi, Chief Scientist of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, highlights the FAO’s work in halting deforestation and maintaining forests; restoring degraded lands and expanding agroforestry; and sustainably using forests and building green value chains.
Ismahane Elouafi – Chief Scientist of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Ismahane Elouafi became chief scientist at the FAO in 2020. It was a new position created within FAO’s core leadership structure and her appointment was announced by FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu at the 35th FAO Regional Conference for the Near East. She also sits on the boards of the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI).
Deforestation, through a variety of means, is continuing almost unabated. In fact, it seems as though it might even be accelerating. Devastating wildfires are occurring world-wide destroying huge areas of forest and displacing both human and animal populations. The examples are many; Los Angeles’ fabled mountain lion population has moved and changed habits following 2018 Woolsey fire; research suggests those areas that have been hit by cyclone-strength winds are more likely to suffer forest fire; and nitrous oxide levels in the atmosphere are believed to soar following a wildfire.
In 2021 alone, tree loss equivalent to an area the size of Portugal was estimated to have been destroyed by wildfires, according to Global Forest Watch. That equates to nine million hectares, and over half was lost in Russia alone.
But it is the transformation of virgin rainforest to agricultural land across the globe that is also raising major concerns across the planet. Poorer nations in the tropics are levelling vast swathes of their rainforests for agricultural purposes, and it is happening in Asia, Africa and South America.
It is the last of these that is perhaps causing most concern; deforestation in the Amazon rainforest continues. The question is, for how long can the ‘Lungs of the Earth’ cope? Are we approaching a ‘Doomsday scenario’ whereby the tipping point is reached? When will it be too late?
To find out the answers to the problems facing the Amazon and elsewhere, Aether spoke to Dr Ismahane Elouafi, Chief Scientist of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, ahead of the UN Climate Conference (COP27).
Aether: What is the rate of deforestation at the moment as compared with historic levels?
IE: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) conducts a Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) every five years. According to the latest assessment, FRA 2020, an estimated 420 million hectares of forest was lost worldwide in 1990-2020 through deforestation, which is the conversion of forest to other land use such as agriculture and infrastructure.
However, deforestation is slowing down. Ten million hectares a year were converted to other land uses in 2015-2020, down from 12 million hectares in 2010-2015 and 16 million hectares in 1990-2000. This trend, which was observed based on country reported statistics, was confirmed by another FAO-led study published in May 2022 and based on remote sensing (for more, see FRA 2020 Remote Sensing survey).
Aether: A recent study found agriculture responsible for more than 90% of deforestation in the tropics. What can be done to mitigate this?
IE: The FRA 2020 Remote Sensing survey shows that the impact of agricultural expansion on forests is even greater than previously thought, driving almost 90% of global deforestation. FAO’s State of the World’s Forests 2022 recommends three pathways for green recovery and building inclusive, resilient and sustainable economies: halting deforestation and maintaining forests; restoring degraded lands and expanding agroforestry; and sustainably using forests and building green value chains.
We should emphasise that not only are these three pathways key to combating looming environmental crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss, but they can also play an important role in supporting the economy at local and global levels. Specific actions include scaling up sustainable agricultural practices that contribute to the conservation and sustainable use and management of forests; minimising environmental degradation; and unlocking the potential of science and innovation, with particular attention to understanding and addressing the main drivers of deforestation.
Public and private initiatives are needed to decouple agricultural commodities from deforestation, implement REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) policies and actions, integrated landscape approaches, and strengthen governance and legality. Local actors can be very efficient forest managers and can be offered, as an example, secure, long-term rights to trees and tree products in exchange for the adoption of good management practices, like restoration and agroforestry. Local actors, including indigenous peoples and small-scale producers are also holders of local forest knowledge.
Untouched Amazon rainforest in Peru
The first ever FAO Science and Innovation Strategy recognises that this knowledge is an important source of innovation for agrifood systems. Therefore, FAO is promoting the combination of traditional and indigenous knowledge, along with scientific knowledge and new technologies to strengthen local capacities and innovation for forest-based recovery and resilience. This is very important to make forest knowledge culturally and ecologically relevant to the needs of the people concerned and applicable at the local level. Governments play a vital role to integrate concerns and actions for forests and trees in agrifood systems transformation policies and programmes designed to meet future needs for food while reducing demand for agricultural land.
They can also draw global strategies to prevent pandemics that are based on reducing the illegal wildlife trade, avoiding land-use change and increasing surveillance. Companies are increasingly committing to zero deforestation in value chains, although progress appears slow. To scale up private-sector efforts, governments should foster innovative approaches for traceability, accountability and capacity development in the context of agricultural and wood (and non-wood forest products) value chains. Funding towards long-term policies aimed at creating sustainable economies and green jobs can further mobilise private-sector investment. Climate finance for forestry is likely to create huge opportunities for forest-based carbon credits because demand and prices for offset credits are expected to rise.
Deforestation in Peru
Aether: To what extent is the deforestation legal or illegal?
IE: While initiatives to help monitor and combat illegal logging are growing, including near-real-time alert systems or certifications for deforestation-free commodities, FAO does not yet have statistics on the share of illegal deforestation of all deforestation.
Aether: The Amazon specifically has been hit by major deforestation. What pressure can the UN bring to reverse this trend?
IE: The Amazon rainforests spread over a territory of nine nations, but the majority of them are found in Brazil. In line with UN Secretary General’s call for scaling up action “to turn the tide of deforestation”, FAO and other UN agencies have been supporting the Amazon countries in reversing forest loss trends.
FAO attaches particular importance to the generation, access and sharing of accurate, up-to-date and transparent data to fight deforestation. High quality data facilitate countries’ decision-making, support international and national monitoring and reporting on progress, inform corrective actions when deforestation trends go upwards, and award achievements when countries demonstrate downwards forest loss trends. FAO supports countries by using modern techniques and innovative technologies for forest data generation (e.g. OPEN FORIS, which is a collection of free and open-source solutions for environmental data collection and monitoring; the Framework for Ecosystem Restoration Monitoring (FERM); the System for earth observations, data access, processing & analysis for land monitoring (SEPAL); the FRA Platform, the Hand in Hand Geospatial Platform; FAOSTAT forestry).
In addition to data generation and dissemination [in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and overall in the Amazon region], FAO’s support to reverse deforestation trends in the Amazon countries includes: i) understanding and addressing the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation [in the Amazon biome]; ii) the enhancement of forests’ role in national policies and NDCs; iii) the mobilisation of finance for forests; e.g. the Green Climate fund, the Architecture for REDD+ Transactions (ART) [in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru]; iv) the recognition, support and reward of indigenous peoples and local communities as guardians of forests [in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru]; v) the promotion of forest-positive agriculture and food systems [in Colombia and Ecuador]; and vi) the technical support to the sustainable management, use and restoration of forests [in Colombia and Ecuador].
FAO also collaborated with the Permanent Secretariat of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (PS/ACTO) on the regional report ‘The status of forests in the Amazon region’.
Rice field, Sao Paulo state, Brazil. © Diego Torres Silvestre. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
Aether: If a low- or middle-income country sees deforestation as necessary to further its economy, what can the UN do to help that nation maintain its forests instead?
IE: As mentioned above, we should encourage countries to protect but also to sustainably manage and use their forest resources. Restoring degraded land, expanding agroforestry and increasing the efficiency of agricultural production systems can help produce the necessary goods and services without the need for converting forests to other land uses. Expanding the use of forest products contributes to carbon neutrality and can drive a transition to the more efficient and circular use of renewable and higher-value materials.
International carbon finance is also seen as a highly promising field. FAO, together with many other international forest monitoring partners, is assisting countries around the world in strengthening their forest monitoring systems to meet enhanced technical requirements of new carbon standards, thereby opening up access to carbon finance.
Aether: Are we nearing a ‘Doomsday scenario’ when Earth cannot cope with any more deforestation?
IE: According to the 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. The rate of species extinction is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely. At the same time, we keep losing the forests.
There is no time to lose – action is needed now to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5°C, reduce the risk of future pandemics, ensure food security and nutrition for all, eliminate poverty, conserve the planet’s biodiversity, and offer young people hope of a better world and a better future for all (State of the World’s Forests 2022).
Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) every five years. According to the latest assessment, FRA 2020
FRA 2020 Remote Sensing Survey
State of the World’s Forests 2022
Hand in Hand Geospatial Platform
Architecture for REDD+ Transactions (ART)