UNFF Director, Juliette Biao: Sustainable forest management critical to undoing centuries of damage

By Charlotte Owen-Burge, Editorial Lead, Climate Champions | May 11, 2023

As the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF) gets underway, Ms. Juliette Biao, UNFF Forum Director and UNEP’s former Director and Regional Representative for Africa, sheds light on the pressing issues surrounding forests. With forests covering 31% of the Earth’s land area and providing habitat for 80% of land-based species, their significance cannot be overstated.

What are the most pressing challenges facing forests today?

Forests cover 31% of our planet’s land area and provide habitat to 80% of all land-based species. They act as carbon sinks, absorbing about 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Forests and trees also play a critical role in the global hydrological cycle, as watersheds that filter and safeguard freshwater, as well as through transpiration which affects local, regional and global rainfall patterns.

Yet despite their immense value, we are continuing to lose forest area. Over the last two decades, we have lost 420 million hectares of forests, particularly in the tropics.

The highest loss of forest area is taking place in Africa and South America. It is estimated that Africa lost 3.94 million hectares of forests per year between 2010 and 2020, while South America lost 2.6 million hectares during the same period. Asia, Europe and Oceania saw a net gain in forests during this period.

Globally, net deforestation rates have declined by over 50 per cent in the last decade, largely due to the efforts by countries that have invested in protected areas, forest restoration, and afforestation. But, deforestation and forest degradation, climate change, forest fires, pests and diseases, continue to put forests at risk.

Agricultural expansion drives almost 90 per cent of global deforestation, according to data from the 2021 FAO Global Remote Sensing Survey. Over half of forest loss is due to conversion of forest land into cropland, while livestock grazing accounts for almost 40 per cent of forest loss.

How have human activities impacted forests?

As human populations have grown, demand for forest products and other natural resources has also grown, putting pressure on forest ecosystems. We all depend on natural resources to provide for all our needs, for goods like food and raw materials, and ecosystem services like water filtration, pollination, and climate regulation.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest drivers of deforestation is agriculture, as forests are cleared for conversion to agricultural land. Therefore, a key challenge is how to manage the ongoing increase in agricultural production, and improve food security, without reducing overall forest areas.

The COVID-19 global pandemic is a stark example of the negative consequences of unsustainable practices. Zoonotic diseases tend to emerge when natural landscapes are degraded, from resource extraction, large-scale deforestation, illegal trade in wildlife, and climate change.  Sustainably managing the forests we have, and restoring the health of forests that are degraded, is critical to undo some of the damage that centuries of human activities have had on our natural ecosystems.

What role does climate change play in exacerbating challenges facing forests, and how can we mitigate these impacts?

Forests are both the solution and the victims of climate change. When forests are sustainably managed, they regulate and stabilize our global climate.  Conversely, when forests are lost or degraded, the costs are high not just in terms of climate, but also for local communities, and biodiversity.

As the impacts of climate change continue to worsen, the impacts on forest ecosystems and forest-dependent communities are also worsening. Countries have reported that forests are being impacted by the increased frequency of climate-related disturbances such as forest fires, droughts, storms, pests and diseases. Members of the UN Forum on Forests have repeatedly identified climate change as one of the significant challenges that are impeding the implementation of sustainable forest management at the national level.

At the same time – forests are also a cost-effective solution to mitigating climate change. Increasing forest area, through forest ecosystem restoration, restoring degraded forests and expanding the area of natural forests, also increases forest carbon stocks – which helps to mitigate climate change. Recognizing this mutually reinforcing link between forests and climate change, Global Forest Goal 1 of the UN Strategic Plan for Forests 2030 includes targets to increase forest area, enhance forest carbon stocks and strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of forests to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change.

How can we balance economic development with the need to protect and preserve forests?

Economic development and sustainable forest management have to go hand in hand. More than 1.6 billion people worldwide depend on forests for food, medicine, fuel, and livelihood. Some 2 billion people, roughly one third of the world’s population and two-thirds of households in Africa, still depend on wood fuel for cooking and heating.  At the same time, the WHO estimates that 3.2 million people die prematurely every year from illnesses attributable to household air pollution.

Ms. Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo

Ms. Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo was appointed by the UN Secretary General as Director of the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat on 20 January 2022.

Improving livelihoods, including reducing poverty, and promoting sustainable and renewable energy alternatives, decent employment, and health are all critical elements of economic development that have to be factored in for sustainable forest management to succeed. It is estimated that 40% of the world’s renewable energy comes from forests – as much as solar, hydroelectric and wind power combined.

Throughout human history, forests have provided a safety net for some of the most economically vulnerable segments of our society. It is estimated that 40% of the extreme poor in rural areas live in forest and savannah areas. One of the ambitious targets under Global Forest Goal 2 (GFG2) is to eradicate extreme poverty for all forest-dependent people by 2030.

The forest sector plays a vital role in supporting the global economy, and we are also seeing the increasing importance of the forest sector to employment. In China, for instance, employment in the forest sector grew from to 52.47 million in 2015 to 60 million people in 2020.

Through our work in assessing the impact of COVID-19 on forests and the forestry sector we have seen that forests helped address many pandemic-induced challenges, including economic recession, increased poverty and widening inequalities. The forest sector has a proven track record in generating jobs with low capital investment and in some countries, forests are now part of COVID-19 recovery plans through job creation in afforestation, reforestation, and agroforestry activities.

How can non-state actors more effectively work with governments and Indigenous peoples to accelerate their goals for forest protection and restoration?

The Global Forest Goals and targets of the UN Strategic Plan for Forests are intended to provide a framework for voluntary actions, contributions and enhanced cooperation by countries and international, regional, subregional and non-governmental partners and stakeholders.

Nearly half of the world’s forest and farm landscapes are owned or managed by smallholders, local communities and Indigenous Peoples.  It is estimated that 1.5 billion local and Indigenous peoples have community-based tenure over forest resources.

One of the targets of Global Forest Goal 5 specifically includes provisions for national and subnational forest-related policies and programmes to engage relevant stakeholders, local communities and Indigenous peoples, fully recognizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Some 142 countries reported in the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA 2020) that they had platforms in place to enable stakeholder participation in forest policy development. Furthermore, throughout this  week at the 18th session of the UN Forum on Forests, we have repeatedly heard both countries and Major Groups representatives recognize the importance of multi-stakeholder and participatory approaches to sustainable forest management.

Here at the UNFF Secretariat, we work with focal points from each of the nine Major Groups: Business and Industry; Children and Youth; Indigenous Peoples; Local Authorities; Nongovernmental Organizations; Scientific and Technological Communities; Small Forest Landowners / Farmers; Women; and Workers and Trade Unions to facilitate coordination, planning, and discussion on UNFF-related issues within and between Major Group networks.

What role do financial institutions play in protecting and restoring forests?

Mobilizing significantly increased financial resources to sustainably manage forests and to restore degraded forest landscapes is critical for the implementation of the UN Strategic Plan for Forests and the Global Forest Goals. Financial institutions play a critical role – as more funding for forests, means more action on the ground, and enables countries to better manage their forests and safeguard the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities.

Indeed, the call to halt and reverse deforestation and forest degradation by 2030 has been gaining momentum across political fora, from the UN Forum on Forests to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development to the UNFCCC. The lack of adequate forest financing has been one of the biggest barriers to realizing this ambition. This is particularly true for developing countries and countries with economies in transition.

We in the UNFF Secretariat are doing our part in helping countries address their forest financing challenges through the UNFF Global Forest Financing Facilitation Network (GFFFN). The Network assists countries to mobilize financing for forests by providing capacity building to design national or regional forest financing strategies and to develop project proposals for multilateral funding institutions.

Financial institutions are active partners in global efforts in sustainable forest management, and part of our work at the UNFF Secretariat is to foster dialogue and strategic partnerships that can ultimately galvanize implementation.

One of the institutions we work closely with is the GEF (Global Environment Facility). The GEF is a part of the Collaborative Partnership of Forests, which was created to support the work of the UN Forum on Forests. We are currently working in collaboration with GEF, and IUCN is preparing a USD 2 million medium-sized GEF-funded project on “Strengthening the conservation of primary forests through enhanced partnerships and coordination of support”. The project aims to raise the profile of primary forests among UNFF members and other stakeholders and highlight the need to increase investment in their management and conservation.

This week at UNFF18, we also had a panel discussion which saw senior representatives of multilateral and regional funding institutions and banks share how their institutions could further support Member States to achieve the Global Forest Goals by 2030. For example, the representative from the African Development Bank shared how they are supporting forest restoration effort policy interventions to build a green economy, including in particular through initiatives to industrialize the timber industry in Central Africa and through reforestation projects in Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda.

Ms. Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo was appointed by the UN Secretary General as Director of the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat on 20 January 2022. Ms. Biao is a national of Benin, and a Canadian Citizen. She has a wealth of experience in international development and 32 cumulative years managing complex initiatives across Africa, in Latin America, and Canada with a focus on the environment, community livelihood and gender equality. Read more here.

Climate Champions articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Climate Champions.



Nature & Land Use

Voces indígenas en la COP28: “Imploramos a toda la humanidad que se una con un objetivo único: declarar, ‘Ya es suficiente'”

Tres miembros de la Delegación de la Comunidad de Primera Línea (FCD), María Pedro de Pedro, Briseida Iglesias López de Guerrero y Maricela Fernández Fernández, arrojan luz sobre las realidades urgentes enfrentadas por quienes están más directamente afectados por el cambio climático. Sus historias revelan no sólo los desafíos, sino también la resiliencia y las soluciones encontradas dentro de las comunidades de primera línea.

Nature & Land Use

Indigenous voices at COP28: “We implore all of humanity to unite with a single objective: to declare, “Enough is enough”

Three members of the Frontline Community Delegation (FCD), Maria Pedro de Pedro, Briseida Iglesias Lopez de Guerrero, and Maricela Fernández Fernández, shed light on the urgent realities faced by those most directly impacted by climate change. Their stories reveal not only the challenges but also the resilience and solutions found within frontline communities.