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Three stepping stones towards integrating forests into landscape planning

Written by Will McFarland


With deforestation contributing up to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, curbing emissions from forests – known as ‘REDD+’ - is vital in efforts to tackle climate change. As countries work towards REDD+, it has become increasingly clear that this is not just an issue for the environment and forests sectors. For example, with conversion to agriculture the main driver of deforestation, changes in the agriculture sector are needed to reduce pressure on forests.

Up until now, REDD+ has remained firmly in the hands of forest and environment actors. However after Doha, there is no doubt that REDD+ needs to move away from being an issue solely for the ‘forests’ sector. We have a paradigm shift towards a mindset where forests are considered as part of landscapes more generally. But could this mean that forest interests lose prominence?

One of the findings from ODI’s recent research into sector coordination to deliver REDD+ in Uganda was that decisions about land use are usually made based on the needs of other more powerful and politically influential sectors, like energy and agriculture. Truthfully, forests are simply not a priority for national governments and are not seen as an important tool for development.

There are winners and losers whenever forest is degraded or converted into agriculture or other land uses, so there must be a domestic discussion to understand competing interests and assess the benefits that different drivers of deforestation bring. There is no single answer – deforestation can provide assets for people in poverty, or it can deprive them of assets. However in our recent work, we struggled to find any real incentives for more influential sectors to meaningfully engage with forests, let alone spend time and effort to ensure that their policies and practices didn’t conflict with forest interests.

So with forests seemingly bringing little influence to the table, how can we move forwards on cross-sector coordination in a way that doesn’t sideline forests? How can we start to integrate forests into landscape planning? In Doha we convened an event to tackle precisely this, and which highlighted the following.

First we must find an agenda that has weight. Food security, water provision and public health issues are tangible to all governments and are more powerful drivers of change in policy and practice. A better understanding of the contribution of forests to these sectors and priorities could help to change power dynamics and political incentives. For example recent UNEP research focused on Kenya's Montane forests does exactly that, showing that the annual cumulative economic loss from deforestation was over four times greater than the revenue generated from deforestation. It found that these costs were felt primarily in the agriculture sector, but also by the hydropower industry, in increased water purification needs, and in public health.

Second we must start to align (unglamorous) technical issues. Mapping tools, technology, legislation and regulations all differ between sectors. Without aligning technical issues, the different sectors will remain in silos and unable to work effectively together at a landscape level. While these may be politically unglamorous or seemingly piecemeal, they are necessary and tangible steps that complement political change.

Third we must make resources available for coordination and ‘mainstreaming’. High-level support – from president to local authority – can help to legitimise and prioritise the allocation of time and resources towards coordination, but changes to what donors are willing to fund are also vital. The costs for coordination can easily fall foul of an ‘output’-based approach to budgeting and evaluation. However, if we look holistically towards the outcome we are trying to achieve, the time spent to achieve coordination – and the costs of technical alignment – will provide a vital platform for longer-term benefits.

In order not to sideline forests in the move towards integrated ‘landscape’ approaches, we must find ways to achieve cross-sector coordination that adequately represents forests interests and, crucially, incentivises the involvement of more influential sectors. The three points highlighted here – finding an agenda with weight, addressing technical issues, and adequately resourcing coordination – offer some fundamental stepping stones towards this objective.