5 ways forests contribute to development beyond climate change

A Lubuk Beringin villager, Rahimah, loads cinnamon in the forest near Lubuk Beringin village, Bungo district, Jambi province, Indonesia. Photo by: Tri Saputro / CIFOR / CC BY-NC

Stopping deforestation could contribute to more than half of the Sustainable Development Goals, including access to food, water and clean energy, a new book claims.

While the Paris Agreement recognized that keeping forests standing will play a key role in combatting climate change, forests can do a lot more for development than that, argue Frances Seymour and Jonah Busch in “Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change,” produced by the Center for Global Development.

Ending deforestation is one of the most cost-effective means of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions the authors suggest, potentially reducing gases by 30 percent, at a cost of around $5 per tonne of avoided emissions, compared with up to $100 per tonne for other interventions.

However, forests can also contribute to more than half of the 17 SDGs agreed by the United Nations in 2015, they claim.  

“Forests are an underappreciated solution to climate change — they don’t get their fair share of political attention or finance — but even more unappreciated is the range of other development benefits created by forests linked to alleviating hunger, providing clean drinking water and even renewable energy generation,” Seymour told Devex.

Policymakers have historically ignored or undervalued forests, both as a means of income generation for communities and in their contribution to agricultural productivity, energy generation and protection from disease. This devaluation has led to a “systematic bias in favor of converting forests to other uses,” as the full impact of their loss is not captured in policy analysis, the authors claim.

Forests are not a “panacea that can solve all development challenges,” Busch said, “but protecting forests for their climate value provides this whole range of really valuable development benefits that you just don’t get with other ways of reducing CO2 emissions.”

Seymour and Busch spoke to Devex about how forests can contribute to the SDG agenda beyond reducing climate change in five key ways — contributing toward clean water and energy supplies, agricultural productivity, health, indigenous rights and poverty reduction.

1. Clean water and energy supplies

One-fifth of all electricity in countries outside of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is generated by hydroelectric dams, which require a plentiful supply of clean water, according to the International Energy Agency.  

When the reservoirs behind dams fill with sediment, this reduces their capacity and requires costly dredging and repairs, Seymour explained. Sedimentation is largely caused by soil erosion, which is a consequence of deforestation and cattle grazing. Tropical forests can reduce soil erosion by slowing the flow of rainwater, she said.

Forests can help clean water in a number of other ways. Mangrove forests are a key tool in keeping waterways clear, by trapping eroded material that has flowed downstream and preventing it from damaging coastal ports and fisheries, according to the authors. This helps to build a coastline, which acts as a natural barrier to protect communities from storms.

Forests also clean water by removing pollutants, some of which are harmful to humans, Seymour explained. Trees do this by absorbing water and releasing it back into the atmosphere through transpiration. Forest vegetation additionally acts as a natural filter as water flows over land, before it reaches streams.

2. Agricultural productivity

Clearing land for agriculture is the main driver of deforestation globally. However, forests can contribute to agricultural productivity if left standing. As well as supplying clean water for irrigation, they are a haven for bees, birds and other creatures that can pollinate crops and control pests. Approximately one-third of all global food needs animal pollination, according to a 2007 study. However, some forest-dwelling animals, such as monkeys and wild pigs, can damage agricultural crops.

Forests are also “natural grocery stores,” said Seymour and Busch, housing a range of edible plants and animals. Communities living in and around forests derive nearly one-quarter of their income from wild forest products, on average. In remote areas, forest foods can greatly enhance diets and improve health: Children in parts of Malawi with higher forest cover were found to have more diversity in their diet and fewer cases of diarrhea.

Inland fisheries also rely on healthy upstream forests, since they keep the water clean and provide nutrition for fish. On the coast, mangrove forests provide a breeding ground for marine life.

Finally, forests also influence weather patterns to make them more conducive for good harvests through their ability to recycle and release rainwater. This creates cooler, wetter weather, which increases agricultural output.

3. Health benefits

Plants and animals found within tropical forests contain an array of chemical properties that are used in thousands of modern and traditional medicines: The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 4 billion people living in developing countries rely on traditional medicines derived from forests, while one-quarter of all pharmaceuticals are made from wild plants or are based on their molecular properties.

In addition, forests can help prevent the spread of disease, Seymour and Busch explained. For example, forests help suppress malaria in a variety of ways, and cutting them down leads to increased rates of transmission. Deforestation has been linked to the spread of diseases, including dengue, lyme disease and yellow fever.

Deforestation also contributes to air pollution since the majority of forest fires are caused by land clearing for farming or logging. The number of premature deaths caused by forest fires is at least 250,000 a year, according to a WHO estimate, and they are also linked to increased cardiorespiratory disease.

4. Forest governance and indigenous rights

Deforestation often occurs in places where there is poor governance, conflict or a lack of strong law enforcement — a recent study estimated that almost half of deforestation is due to the illegal conversion of forests for commercial agriculture. Stopping deforestation means addressing these governance gaps, which can have spillover benefits for other areas of development, Seymour said, including the protection of local interests and reduction of state revenue losses.  

“Efforts to reduce deforestation are compatible, if not synergistic, with efforts to achieve governance-related goals such as reduced corruption, clarified property rights, increased transparency and accountability of management of state-owned natural resources,” she said.
In some instances, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiatives, which offer developing countries financial incentives to reduce emissions from deforestation, have been used by local forest dwellers to assert their rights to forest resources.

In Indonesia, for example, indigenous groups used the political space opened up by national REDD+ discussions to make themselves visible to policymakers and advance their customary claims over forest areas.

5. Income for poor households and women

Poor and marginalized groups are disproportionately affected by forest loss, since they are more dependent on the goods and services that come from them.

People who live in and around forests derive approximately 22 percent of their total income from them, including from wood, plant and animal products, dyes and other sources; and studies show that the proportion of income dependency on forest resources increases among poorer populations.

In addition, women from those communities are often more dependent on forest products for generating household income than men. One study in Brazil, for example, found that while men valued forests for cash income from timber, women placed higher value on continued access to forest-based foods and medicines. 

If these factors are not taken into account, the poorest communities and women could lose most from deforestation.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.