©FAO/P. Johnson

The state of the world's forests 2022


  • Most countries have taken steps along the forest pathways, although few appear to have coherent policies to promote all three and enhance their complementarity. There is clear international momentum, and the time is right for bold strategies to scale up the pathways in ways that are mutually reinforcing and build resilience.
  • The three forest pathways carry economic, social, political and environmental risks. For example, there is a risk that investors, including smallholders, will miss investing in more profitable ventures; conversely, the diversification offered by the forest pathways could increase the economic resilience of local actors.
  • Next steps could involve four possible actions: (1) directing funding for recovery towards long-term policies aimed at creating sustainable economies and green jobs and further mobilizing private sector investment; (2) empowering and incentivizing local actors to take a leading role in the forest pathways; (3) engaging in policy dialogue on sustainable forest use as a means for simultaneously achieving economic and environmental goals; and (4) maximizing synergies among the three pathways and between agricultural, forestry, environmental and other policies and programmes and minimizing trade-offs.

6.1 The role of forests and trees in green recovery and resilience

There is widespread agreement that a green recovery is needed – not only from the pandemic but also in response to the environmental threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and the decline of ecosystem services. To date, however, efforts and investment towards economic recovery from the pandemic have largely ignored the potential of forests.

In many countries, forest conservation is not a high political priority, with rural people locked in daily struggles to feed their families. Economists can sometimes make a strong financial case for deforestation because growing annual crops can generate fairly reliable, regular revenue. On the other hand, forests play essential roles in the well-being of forest-proximate people, especially the very poor, and forest degradation and loss reduces the safety-net function of forests. Moreover, there is ample evidence, as summarized in this report, that forests play crucial roles in regulating the local to global environment and therefore in supporting all people and life on Earth.

But does the world really need more trees and forests? To some extent, the answer to this question is context-specific; for example, some landscapes may already comprise a suitable balance among land uses, and others might tolerate a certain amount of further forest clearance. In general, however, the evidence presented in this report indicates that the continuation of deforestation and forest degradation is compounding problems associated with, for example, the emergence of infectious diseases, local to global climate change, damage caused by disasters, and the increasing scarcity of good-quality water. In addition, the world will clearly need a larger supply of materials in the future, and reducing the environmental impacts of their production, use and disposal will be essential if the world is to achieve sustainability. Wood and other forest-based materials, which are renewable and have other environmentally desirable qualities, will certainly have an important part to play.

Trees and forests offer solutions to many challenges, and one of their advantages is that they can address several simultaneously. This report explores three forest pathways with potential to assist in economic recovery from the pandemic while also addressing other problems. The pathways are (1) halting deforestation and maintaining forests; (2) restoring degraded lands and expanding agroforestry; and (3) sustainably using forests and building green value chains.

Alternative pathways for the future of food and agriculture exist and need to be considered carefully. FAO has done this in its Strategic Framework 2022–31561 around the strategic ambitions of better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life, leaving no one behind.562

The three forest pathways build on FAO’s ambition, vision and principles towards a better and more sustainable future. They are mutually supportive: for example, the role of wood and other forest products and services in a more circular economy will be enhanced by the creation of new forest and tree resources, restoration and agroforestry and by sustainably using retained natural forests; these, in turn, can create green jobs and income and thereby help underpin recovery and prosperity. Moreover, some solutions for better protecting the environment that seem to run counter to socio-economic interests today could have net benefits if current incentives are altered in ways that turn trade-offs into opportunities in which, for example, farmers can increase their productivity and incomes (e.g. through the adoption of innovative and green technologies, livelihoods and jobs) while also reducing risk. In addition to incentives, social-protection and social policies in general will be important for enabling resource-poor households to respond to such re-engineered incentives.

Not all trade-offs will disappear, and nor will all benefits remain at current levels. The distribution of benefits may change, too, given the ambition to “leave no one behind”. Nevertheless, there is a strong case for much more emphasis on forests as part of the search for solutions. The long-term sustainable management of natural forests will ensure the provision of vital ecosystem services, including the conservation of biodiversity, which will support restoration efforts and help maintain resilience in the face of climate change. In an ideal world, a blend of forest protection, use and sustainable management will be integral to a clean and prosperous circular economy – supporting agriculture and improving the livelihoods of millions of rural people as well as the global population.

The three forest pathways are not new, but characterizing them in this way is a step towards considering them as an interrelated package that constitutes a holistic approach to addressing several local to global problems. It is demonstrably feasible to manage forests to produce multiple goods and services over very long periods without noticeable declines in productivity, food security or social and environmental values. In most regions, forestry is backed by more than a hundred years of practice and scientific inquiry and by traditional knowledge accumulated over centuries. The key to scaling up the pathways is ensuring that the benefits and costs are shared equitably among stakeholders; this, in turn, will require governance approaches that are inclusive, transparent and backed by adequate oversight.

To some extent, the halting-deforestation and restoration pathways are prerequisites for, and will underpin, the sustainable-use pathway. Minimizing and reversing deforestation, establishing new forest resources and managing all forests sustainably will enable forest-based industries to meet an increasing proportion of the world’s needs for materials and ecosystem services and, in so doing, generate green jobs and support economic development.

Pursuing the three forest pathways carries risks. For example, climate change could threaten the health and vitality of both natural and planted forests, and adaptive management will be important to mitigate this. There is an economic risk that investors – including smallholders – will miss investing in more profitable ventures by pursuing the forest pathways and that governments will spend scarce resources on forestry options with a significant risk of failure in the locations where they are tried. Conversely, the diversification of economic activities and income sources offered by the forest pathways, when adopted appropriately, is likely to increase the economic resilience of people at the local scale.

Yet another risk is the use of the forest pathways as a means for delaying action in other areas, especially in the context of climate change. The contributions of the forest pathways to (especially) climate-change mitigation need to be verifiable and not adopted as a means for avoiding necessary reductions of GHG emissions in other sectors.

Mitigating such risks seems feasible given existing knowledge, the increasing role of multistakeholder platforms in ensuring that all voices are heard, and the growing availability of digital means for generating near-real-time information on biophysical, market and social parameters. Much is still uncertain, however, about the impacts and outcomes of the forest pathways, and more work is needed to fully understand their costs, benefits and risks, especially those that are location-specific.

Many countries have already taken significant steps along the three pathways, such as by incentivizing forest conservation; improving forest MRV; investing in forest law enforcement, governance and trade measures and REDD+; tenure reforms; developing forest plantations; restoring degraded lands; and promoting agroforestry. Nevertheless, efforts aimed at scaling up the roles of forests and trees continue to face hurdles such as a lack of investment; environmentally harmful subsidies; a lack of engagement in decision-making; regulatory barriers, especially for smallholders; biophysical risks such as fire, pests and drought; and negative perceptions about sustainable forest use and the economic value of forests and trees in agricultural landscapes. Therefore, further efforts are needed for countries to develop policies that promote all three pathways and enhance their complementarity.

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