Press Conference by International Union for Conservation of Nature to Launch Report ‘True Economic Value of Forests’

1 February 2011

Press Conference by International Union for Conservation of Nature to Launch Report ‘True Economic Value of Forests’

1 February 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by International Union for Conservation of Nature

to Launch Report ‘True Economic Value of Forests’


The latest report of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), entitled True Economic Value of Forests, was premised on the notion that a better evaluation of what forests were worth would generate direct benefits for poor forest dwellers, open up new markets and affect global economic growth, correspondents learned today at a Headquarters press conference.

“The economic benefits of forests are massively under-valued by Governments and donor agencies,” according to the report’s co-authors, Lucy Emerton, IUCN’s Thematic Adviser on Markets and Incentives, and Gill Shepherd, Thematic Adviser on Poverty and Landscapes, who attended the study’s launch.  Stewart Maginnis, IUCN’s Director of Development and Environment, moderated the briefing.

The mission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, self-described as the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network — boasting a membership exceeding 1,000 governmental and non-governmental organizations, and almost 11,000 volunteer scientists in more than 160 countries – is to help find pragmatic solutions to the most pressing environment and development challenges.  It supports scientific research, manages field projects all over the world and brings its members, United Nations agencies, companies and local communities together to develop and implement policy, laws and best practices.

Mr. Maginnis recalled that 10 years ago the conventional wisdom had been that forests had a very limited contribution to make in terms of poverty reduction and world livelihoods.  If the IUCN had a role, it was only a supporting one, he added, pointing out that such a premise was untrue for many who had worked in the field for years at the community level.  They faced a lack of convincing empirical evidence on the scope of human reliance on forests, he noted.  However, with the collection of field data and broader economic analysis, new evidence “seems to be turning the conventional wisdom on its ear”, he said, adding that there was strong evidence of a whole new relationship with forests that had existed for some time and, indeed, had a critical role to play in people’s lives.

Ms. Emerton said the IUCN work had shown that putting local people in control of managing their forests was “a really good public investment option”.  Private investment had amounted to $120 billion per year over time, and since the 1980s, the forest sector had outperformed the stock market, she noted.  However, while banks and financial institutions had been eager to tap into the market opportunities afforded by managed forestry, public-sector investors had been much less responsive to the potential of sustainable forest management to contribute to economic growth.

Of particular concern was locally controlled forest management, she continued.  It was estimated that approximately $10 billion of Government budgets and $2 billion in development assistance were allocated to the forestry sector each year, but only a tiny fraction of that was spent on locally controlled forestry.  Public funding was also overshadowed by the estimated $150 billion currently injected into the commercial forest sector as part of private funding and mainstream institutional investment, she said, asserting that locally controlled forestry “can secure massive economic returns”, as documented by the IUCN’s work.

She went on to say that the evidence demonstrated how management approaches that strengthened community rights and control over forests could leverage real and meaningful improvements in the livelihoods of the poor.  More than 400 million hectares worldwide, or an area roughly equivalent to the size of all the European Union countries combined, were under forest management.  That did not just involve a lot of forests, but a lot of people, she stressed.  Some 1.5 billion in tropical and developing countries — a little more than the population of China — depended on locally controlled forests for their livelihoods.

A calculation of those local livelihood benefits put the value at $130 billion per year, more than the gold reserves of France and Switzerland combined, she continued, emphasizing that the economic footprint went far beyond the economic livelihoods of the poor.  Locally controlled forestry generated value in terms of water supply, tourism, energy, employment, foreign exchange, industrial production and even mitigation of global climate change.  The bottom line was that, however high the figures, “unless we can actually demonstrate that locally controlled forestry can be facilitated, these figures have very little meaning”, she said.

Based on those economic values, she said, public-sector investment must take action to dismantle all obstacles — laws, “administrative foot-dragging”, policies, and weak markets — that prevented local communities from managing and benefiting from their own forests.  She said she favoured hard-cash injections, which, among other things, would increase the tiny proportion of the $12 billion annual allocation, and a “soft” investment in improved laws and markets.  Very small investments could generate enormous economic gains, she added.

Ms. Shepherd complemented some of those numbers with figures from the field and additional insights, explaining that one reason why forests had been undervalued in the past was the invisibility of their cash component, which was not measured by national Government statistics.  Until that aspect of forestry was understood, forests would continue to be undervalued in terms of their support to local populations, she stressed, cautioning also against underestimating the importance of forests in terms of animals, a major source of wealth.

Describing how women used forests differently from men, and how distance affected their use, she explained that the further away a forest, the greater the dependence on it.  But every single person — rich and poor, men and women — depended on forests to a large degree, she said, adding that they were as much a part of daily income as earnings from employment.  Forests were also constantly changing, she pointed out, noting that, through all such changes, even tumultuous ones, they had supported local people.  In short, resilience had been maintained by forests, “so we can’t underestimate how major this is”.

Mr. Maginnis said the overarching conclusion was that forests had been, and would continue to be, undervalued and underestimated by policymakers in both rich and poor countries, as reflected in development policies.  But there was a real opportunity to mobilize them as drivers of improved livelihoods and to lift the barriers that stood in the way.  From a conservation organization’s perspective, that signalled better managed forests and improved diversity, he said.

Replying to a question, Ms. Emerton said she had seen a tremendous change in the attitude of the Government of Brazil on the issues, compared to several years ago.  Brazil was playing “quite a constructive role”, she added, noting, however, that she did not know whether anything had changed on the ground.

In response to another question, she explained that conventionally, economists had seen values in terms of the market, noting the “real challenge” presented by ecosystem benefits.  It was not possible to buy and sell watershed protection, and the world was only now beginning to buy and sell carbon.  The methods used in the study, therefore, reflected a toolbox developed over the past 20 years or so; accepted methodologies looked at the costs avoided.  So if forests were not conserved, the question was what costs would be incurred, for example, in maintaining the water supply.  Citing investment in Beijing’s water supply, which was seeing a huge return, she said every dollar invested brought a return of $250 in water benefits.

Concerning land ownership, Ms. Shepherd said the customary forest rights were not recognized, so the IUCN was engaged in negotiations on that very issue in many places where it worked.  Uganda, for example, had changed specific laws in one area to allow for more explicit recognition of forest rights, while applying a by-law in areas where the IUCN had not worked at all.  She said the organization had been demarcating clan boundaries in a long process involving the boundary of a national park and world heritage site while ensuring that people got the land they needed.

Mr. Maginnis described such negotiations as a global imperative, noting that much hope was pinned on the need to slow deforestation and degradation, which, in turn, would slow the effects of global warming.  Unless rights were clarified at the global level, schemes to reduce deforestation and degradation would not work, he warned.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.