Forests – sustaining livelihoods of people worldwide

On 8-19 April, the UN Forum on Forest 10 (UNFF) will gather the world community to focus on some of the pressing issues at stake to secure healthy forests worldwide. Jan McAlpine, Director of the UN Forum on Forest Secretariat, shared some of her hopes for this major event and beyond, in an exclusive DESA News interview.

Forests cover one third of the Earth’s land mass, performing vital functions across the globe. Around 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihood and they are the most biologically-diverse ecosystems on land.

As her team in the UN Forum on Forest Secretariat is getting ready for this major event, Jan McAlpine spoke with DESA News about some of the results she hopes will come out from the Forum in Istanbul, as well as some of the main opportunities and challenges at hand.

“I have a lot of confidence in the countries of the United Nations Forum on Forests,” said Ms. McAlpine, pointing out that 197 countries now belong to this universal body, which this year will focus on economic development and forests. “I fully expect that the forum will come out highlighting key, very important points, that economic development and forests are closely intertwined,” she added.

Understanding vital role of forests

Ms. McAlpine also discussed the extent to which forests are managed, and issues related to financing that is available for forests. “Financing for forests has been on the decline now for 22 years,” she said, stating that that this has not so much to do with the economic downturn, but is rather related to the fact that people around the world do not truly understand what forests contribute.

“Once it is understood, for example, that most of the clean water of the world results from forests cleaning that water so that it is potable, drinkable, then we have a shot at starting to see some pricing go in, where it is understood that there is a direct connection with gross domestic product, exports and income,” Ms. McAlpine underscored.

Ms. McAlpine also put spotlight on the role of women, who in some parts of the world make up for 70 percent of the work force, and how they collect and make use of non-timber products like shea butter, fruits and nuts. “Forests are the pantry, the local grocery store for many parts of the world,” she said, adding that these are issues also expected to be addressed by the forum and to be brought to the attention of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the General Assembly.

Opportunities and challenges promoting healthy forests

Ms. McAlpine outlined the opportunities at hand, also emphasizing the progress made since the UN Forum on Forests was established. “We have improved an understanding, that there are the three elements – the economic, social and environmental aspects of forests,” she said.

“The biggest challenge is that forests are managed and impacted by many, many sectors and by many, many institutions and they do not work together,” she explained. She described how many governments house forests management in the agriculture ministry, where forests often become a small area of attention. “Environment ministries are usually separate from forests,” she said, adding that these different offices then tend to simply look at their own areas of objectives.

“They are not incorporating the sustainable use of forests and forest products and how to balance that out economically,” Ms. McAlpine said, outlining a situation where forests are addressed in silos.

Need for integrated forest data

Ms. McAlpine also pointed to the need to address existing data gaps caused by how different aspects related to forests are captured in isolation. For example, the Convention on Biological Diversity addresses the biodiversity issues relevant to forests, while the Climate Change Convention looks at the carbon issues related to forests and so on.

“This is mirrored in the private sector,” Ms. McAlpine added, “social institutions, statistics, governments, do not integrate this data”.

“How do we as the United Nations working as one with partners, start to identify these data areas which we need to better understand? And how do we integrate it with the policy level. Because ultimately, the United Nations Forum on Forests was developed to look at forest policy comprehensively, everything directly related to and impacting on forests.“

Role of forests makes strong impact

When we talked about memories of forests and what they mean for her, Ms. McAlpine shared her personal story. Her family moved to Africa when she was only three months old and she lived in different countries in southern and central Africa until the age of 19.

Following years in Rwanda and Burundi, the family moved to Northern Congo where they settled in an area with beautiful tropical rain forests. “I remember as a 15-year-old, a vivid moment of trekking on a long, long, walk in an area I couldn’t believe we would ever find,” she said, describing the walk with a guide, who took her to where the local tribe was living.

“They got everything for their living from the forests (…). Seeing how these people depended, interrelated to and interacted with forests appealed to me,” Ms. McAlpine explained, also referring to a book by anthropologist Collin Turnbull, which made a huge impact on her. It portrayed the death of an entire tribe of people who were forced to move from the forests and told to become farmers. “They could not survive the transition from their cultural heritage to living in a very unfamiliar managed environment. And it destroyed their society. They were gone.”

As a nine-year-old in Rwanda, Ms. McAlpine also witnessed the country’s first genocide. She saw first-hand what can happen when more and more pressure is put on the land. “People had gradually gotten rid of most of the trees and then you have soil erosion, you have a lack of soil richness to be able to grow the kind of food you need. The domino starts to fall, leading to chaos and anarchy.”

Ms. McAlpine described how these experiences have shaped her professional life. “My whole career track, I can point back to that experience and that part of the world and seeing the interconnectedness between forests, trees and people”. At the same time, she also expressed thankfulness for now being in a position as the Director of the Secretariat of the UN Forum on Forests, where she can actually make a difference for forests and people worldwide.

“I’m looking forward to the UN Forum on Forests 10 coming up from 8 to 19 April in Istanbul,” she said. Decision-makers will then gather to tackle challenges and, as Ms. McAlpine described it with an analogy to forests, “to see what low hanging fruit can be picked and what needs to be grown and developed over time so that eventually we are on a real trajectory to addressing the synergy needed between economic, social and environmental issues”.

For more information:

UN Forum on Forests