New research identifies ‘megatrends’ affecting forests

Researchers from academic, governmental and international organisations have identified five large-scale ‘megatrends’ that are likely to have a large impact on forests and forest communities over the coming decade

Forests play an essential role in international efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss, as well as eradicating poverty and hunger. Around the world 1.6bn people live within 5km of a forest, and millions of people, especially from developing countries, rely on them for their livelihoods. Forests around the world have rich biodiversity and regulate crucial aspects of the carbon cycle.

Despite their importance, historically, research on forests and livelihoods has mainly focused on understanding their role in local household and community level dynamics. This new research, published in Nature Plants, takes a key  step forward in identifying the links between human and natural systems at the regional and global scales, which is critical for future policy and action.

The five megatrends revealed by the research are:

Trend one: Forest megadisturbances

Droughts and excessive precipitation are increasing forests’ susceptibility to diseases and human-induced wildfires and floods and this is leading to defoliation, tree mortality and declines in forest productivity at unprecedented scales, with increasing evidence that forest disturbance can result in the emergence of diseases with the ability to spread globally.

Policy responses to these disturbances will require balancing a range of mitigation and adaptation efforts – – whilst opportunities and challenges are likely to arise from efforts to align forest conservation and restoration with other sustainability priorities, such as poverty alleviation.

Trend two: Changing rural demographics

Increased migration to urban areas is causing an unprecedented exodus among forest-reliant communities. The effects of these demographic shifts, including forest resurgence on formerly agricultural lands and participation in decision-making, are not well understood.

While populations shifts could result in opportunities for effective forest conservation, they can also  lead to deforestation as greater urban demand and large industrial projects are created.

Trend three: the rise of the middle class

By 2030 the middle class in low- and middle-income countries will grow to almost 5bn people – around 50% of the global population. The growth in demand that this creates will increase pressure on land and other resources.

Growing consumption and demand of commodities has already seen large scale corporate-led land acquisitions for industrial production of cattle, soy and palm oil in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Between 2001-2015, 27% of forest disturbance was attributed to commodity-driven deforestation. Further growth in demand and a continuing culture of consumerism will alter local and global consumption patterns, with potentially severe effects on deforestation rates, emissions, wildlife populations, ecosystem services and rural communities.

Trend four: Use of digital technologies

Access to digital communication technology has grown exponentially in recent years, with a sevenfold increase in internet and mobile cellular use since 2000. The majority of this growth has come from outside industrialised countries and is likely to have a transformational impact on the forest sector. Technologies that collect and disseminate data are increasingly accurate and easy-to-use, including land mapping tools, real-time satellite data and crowd-sourced data.

Although they can be accessed by those involved in illicit activity such as logging and mining, these technologies also provide opportunities. Increasingly available data can benefit a wide range of forest sector stakeholders including policymakers, oversight bodies, non-governmental actors, managers and local communities. New technologies are already supporting the surveillance and certification of global production networks, which is aiding regulatory control of forest-based products and people threatening forests.

Trend five: Infrastructure development

Large scale infrastructure projects such as China’s Belt and Road initiative are likely to have transformational impacts on forests and rural communities. To accommodate demand for energy, natural resources and transport, many countries have planned ambitious infrastructure growth.

By 2050, there is expected to be at least 25 million km of new roads globally to help facilitate commodity flow between transport hubs; governments in the Amazon basin alone are developing 246 new hydroelectric dams; and illegal mining activities are expanding rapidly across the globe. This can lead to forest loss, displaces people, disrupts livelihoods and provokes social conflicts as communities lose access to land and resources.

Identifying the five forest megatrends is important in understanding large-scale human and environmental processes, supporting the essential role of forests in a local context and also meeting global sustainability challenges.

Johan Oldekop of the University of Manchester based Global Development Institute, and lead author of the report, commented: “Our study allows us to take stock of key socioeconomic, political and environmental issues affecting forests and rural communities, and identify trends likely to have disproportionate impacts on forests and forest-livelihoods in the coming decade.”

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