A New Year's Resolution to Protect the World's Forests

It is that time of time of year again for New Year’s resolutions. Each January, we find ourselves thinking about ways to generate positive change within ourselves and the world around us.

This year, the United Nations has resolution: to sustainably manage the world’s forests. The UN has dubbed 2011 as the International Year of Forests in order to raise awareness on sustainable management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests. This year's slogan is 'Forests For People'. The ultimate message is that we need to start protecting the world’s forests now for the fate of our own future.

According to the UN, forests cover 31% of land and over 300 million people call these forests home. Deforestation is the biggest threat to today’s forest and contributes to global warming. For our forests here in North America, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that climate change is likely to alter the geographic distribution of forests, including regionally important tree species, such as New England sugar maples and boreal forests in Alaska.

The UN also reports that the world lost about 36.5 million acres of forest due to deforestation during the 1990s alone. Forests are home to 80 percent of the world's biodiversity and provide a livelihood for 1.6 billion people, nearly a quarter of the world's population. Given these statistics, it is crucial that the protection of the world’s forests becomes a priority. This year, The International Year of Forests seeks to bring this issue into the spotlight. Throughout the year, the public will be informed of the vitality of forests to human survival. Many activities to raise forest awareness are being planned, such as exhibitions, tree plantings and competitions that will help bring attention to the importance of forests and involve the public in their protection.

When addressing conservation, like in many other fields of work, solutions endure especially well when social entrepreneurs leading the solution have a community-level understanding, build a broad citizen base of support, introduce incentives for participation, and topple traditional barriers to entry or involvement. This bottom up approach is what makes Ashoka Fellows such as Jafar Shah so impressive.

Jafar Shah is creating a model for partnerships between local communities, local governments, and a provincial government in Pakistan to help conserve community forests and natural resources. Forest cover in Pakistan is being depleted at an annual rate of 3 percent despite expensive programs aimed at reforestation. Although policies and laws grant communities rights to use and manage forest resources, the government blames the communities for overgrazing and overuse of their forests. Thus the government has curtailed community involvement in forest management and revoked the use of forest resources. However, the provincial government allows commercial timber harvesting that brings in annual revenue and overlooks illegal logging.

By focusing on the local-level, the communities who depend on the forests play a critical role in conserving them. Shah Jafar’s community organization, Caravan, mobilizes local people and helps them manage their forest and water resources by assisting them in finding alternatives to timber for heating and cooking. Jafar realized that organized local communities might be able to effectively engage in forest conservation and control illegal logging if they had influence at the policy level. He organized groups at the community level in four valleys and a network of community organizations while engaging the government in a policy dialogue on forest management. His story is longer than what's layed out here, and has had more impact that can be described in a paragraph, but his work carries the fundamental qualities of a social entrepreneur.

Right now, Mexico is at the forefront of sustainable community forestry projects. The country contains more than 800,000 hectares of community forests, according to the World Bank. Many community forests in Mexico rely on small enterprise based on the theory that if members of the community depend on the forest, they will have an incentive to keep them alive. This can decrease deforestation and expand of forest cover. In light of Mexico’s recent success, we should turn to the country for tips on how to manage forests while fomenting the development of local economies.

Environmental conservation and economic development are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the concepts are very much harmonious when taking a citizen-based, community-level approach. With a new perspective that places value on the environmental quality of our forests, it is very much possible that we can undo the harm that has been done.

As we ring in 2011 as the International Year of Forests, I add to my list of resolutions to do what I can to increase awareness on protecting the world’s forests and support sustainable foresting practices.