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Cancún Climate Change Summit: Protect Our Forests to Protect People Too
We must consider setting an explicit time frame for protecting forests and halting their rapid degradation
The rate at which species are disappearing from Planet Earth is horrifying. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the rate is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural rate of extinction. This is largely due to human activity. The United Nations declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity to raise awareness of the critical role that biological diversity plays in sustaining life.
At the same time, nations are grappling with thorny questions of how to slow climate change. The UN is currently convening its 16th climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico, where bold steps may be taken to protect forests as a means of lowering carbon emissions.
Ape conservation tackles both of these issues head on. Apes live primarily in the tropical forests of Africa and Asia. Destruction of these forests largely responsible for the fact that all species of great apes are endangered. Even the illegal commercial hunting of great apes and other animals for food – known as the bushmeat trade – would not be nearly as widespread if not for the logging and mining roads that are cut through forests, allowing access to previously remote habitat of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans.
However, to protect the forest we must do more than curb habitat destruction, for not only do apes need forest habitat to survive, but they, in turn, play an important role in the survival of the forests. In fact, biodiversity – the whole complex mix of animal and plant species in a forest ecosystem – must be preserved if we are to ensure the health and long-term survival of the forest itself because the countless life forms found there are interdependent in ways we do not yet fully understand.
We do know that, when the balance is upset, things tend to go wrong. For example, there are fewer seedlings in forests where there has been a lot of hunting, especially where primate numbers have been greatly reduced. In Africa and southeast Asia, the great apes – along with many other mammals and birds – play a critical role in dispersing seeds. It is clear, then, that we must prevent or at least reduce threats such as the bushmeat trade and indeed the number of wild animals consumed per se.
But how do we do this in areas where so many people are living in poverty, turning to the bounty of the forests for their very survival?
I began my work in Africa 50 years ago, studying the chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Back then chimpanzee habitat extended far beyond the boundaries of the park. But by the early 1990s the trees outside the park had almost entirely disappeared.
When I flew over the whole area in a small plane, it was obvious that there were more people living in the villages around the park than the land could support – the result not only of typical population growth but also an influx of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. These people, economically very poor, were struggling to survive and cutting down the last of their forests in desperate efforts to grow crops to feed their families or earn a livelihood through charcoal production. The land had been over-farmed, the soil was losing its fertility, and there was widespread soil erosion. Could we protect the chimpanzees if we helped the people?
And so 16 years ago, we – the Jane Goodall Institute – started TACARE, a community-based conservation programme. We have found that an integrated approach to poverty alleviation is what works. We introduced better ways to grow the food the local people wanted, micro-credit programmes especially for women, sustainable use of water, better health facilities, and environmental education programmes to provide information about the forest and its inhabitants.
It was difficult at first to gain the co-operation of the people, but over the years we succeeded by working with them and respecting their needs and priorities. Today these people have become better stewards of the land and, as part of the participatory village land-use planning process, set aside village forest reserves that will help restore not only their own environment, but also the habitat of the chimpanzees – the forest and woodlands.
At the climate change conference in Bali in December 2007, world attention was focused on a new idea: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation or "Redd". Since then, "Redd+" has evolved to recognise the importance of poverty alleviation, sustainable forest management, especially by local communities, and the conservation of species, as well as forest protection for carbon sequestration.
We must now capitalise on the Redd+ efforts of the past year and take the call to end deforestation to the next level. We must make sure that Redd+ projects are located in biodiversity-rich areas where keystone species such as great apes are struggling to survive. We must consider setting an explicit time frame for protecting forests and halting their rapid degradation. We must protect the rights of forest-dependent communities who are most directly impacted by deforestation and who at the same time can play a pivotal role in their protection. We need national strategies to be developed that allow full and effective participation by all stakeholders, including local communities. And, while focusing on forests most at risk now, it is important to establish a separate mechanism for protecting forests that are not yet significantly threatened.
Finally, let us acknowledge that forests are important in their own right – for me the most magical places on Earth.