Rod Taylor, Director, WWF International Forest Programme


Rod Taylor, Director of the WWF International Forest Programme details the exhaustive work of the Programme to protect forests and minimise harmful deforestation in the near future


WWF has recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Could you outline the network’s current areas of interest and the motivation behind these focal points?

WWF was started by a small group of committed wildlife enthusiasts. Over the decades it has grown into a global organisation, with some 5 million supporters. However, more than that, WWF’s focus has evolved from localised efforts in favour of single species and individual habitats to an ambitious strategy to preserve biodiversity and achieve sustainable development across the globe.

Even as our scale and scope has expanded, we know we can’t take on every single issue facing the planet. That’s why we designed 13 Global Initiatives. These are large-scale efforts that can have the potential to create significant, lasting benefits for priority species and eco-regions – including key forest regions such as the Amazon, Congo Basin and Borneo.

In what ways has the WWF’s work on forests changed over the years?

Forests have been at the heart of WWF’s work since the beginning, and they remain central to our mission of people living in harmony with nature. But the science and practice of forest conservation has changed in the past five decades.

In the early days, WWF focused on setting up parks and reserves to preserve large areas of primary forest, particularly those that were home to iconic wildlife species such as pandas, tigers, elephants and great apes.

In the 1990s, WWF’s forest work expanded beyond protected areas and could be summed up as ‘protect, manage and restore’. This broader approach recognised that the extraction of timber and other products from a forest could either be ‘managed’ to maintain the quality of the forest, or done in a destructive way that degraded the forest and left it vulnerable to fire, encroachment or conversion to pastures and crops.

WWF helped create the Forest Stewardship Council, which provides a means for consumers and businesses to give preference to wood and paper products certified as coming from well-managed forests. WWF also advocated that forests be restored in regions where they were already heavily degraded or fragmented. Restoring forest ‘corridors’ offered a lifeline to animal populations isolated in ever-shrinking islands of habitat. Restoration can also reverse the legacies of historical deforestation, such as increased vulnerability to disastrous fires, floods, erosion, landslides and avalanches.

The most recent evolution of WWF’s forest work is to address the many threats to forests that come from outside the forest products sector – from agriculture, mining, expanding road systems and frontiers of settlement. Increasingly, WWF is searching for solutions to reduce the impact of these other sectors on forests and encouraging land use mosaics that balance the need to maintain natural ecosystem services with the need to allocate land and water to the production of food, energy and materials for a growing world population.

Another major new element of the work is climate change. Reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) is the goal of new incentives and activities under discussion in the climate change arena. REDD acknowledges that the way we use forests can mean they are a carbon sink – part of the climate solution – or a source of greenhouse gas emissions – part of the climate problem. If we can get REDD right, we can make forests worth more standing than cut down.

Does WWF have any new plans to generate more awareness about these issues?

The main problem really isn’t a lack of awareness. Most decision makers know that deforestation exacerbates climate change, has negative impacts on water sources and threatens already endangered species. It is also no secret that deforestation often happens without respect for the rights of indigenous peoples who depend on forests for their livelihoods.

The challenge is to muster political will to change policies that enable those who clear forests or engage in destructive logging practices to profit from running down the natural capital tied up in forests. One notion gaining traction is that healthy ecosystems provide economically valuable services – things like flood protection, crop pollination, water provision and carbon storage – in addition to the profit that can be gained from extracting things like timber. So decision makers are starting to understand how ecosystems underpin our economies, and that’s a powerful argument for conserving forests.

What is the meaning of ‘zero net deforestation and forest degradation’? Can this be achieved by 2020?

WWF defines zero net deforestation and forest degradation (ZNDD) as no net forest loss through deforestation and no net decline in forest quality through degradation. ZNDD involves reducing natural forest loss to near zero, but is not a total prohibition on forest clearing. Rather, it recognises the need to leave some room in some places for change in the land use mosaic, as long as the net quantity, quality and carbon density of forests is maintained. In the ‘net’ accounting, new plantations do not offset natural forest losses, as many values are diminished when plantations replace natural forests.

WWF advocates ZNDD by 2020 as a target that reflects the scale and urgency with which threats to the world’s forests and climate need to be tackled. Achieving ZNDD by 2020 would halt the depletion of forest-based biodiversity and ecosystem services, including critical habitats for endangered species. ZNDD by 2020 would also see the world’s forests contributing to an early peak and decline in greenhouse gas emissions, transforming them from a net source of emissions to a net carbon sink. If action on greenhouse gas emissions is delayed, we face the prospect of runaway climate change. In that scenario, many forests will not survive, and the carbon they store will be released into the atmosphere, further accelerating climate change in a disastrous downward spiral.

With vision and action, the stewards of the world’s forests and those with political and economic power can achieve ZNDD by 2020. However, business-as-usual will not be enough. Bold new solutions are needed, including government commitments to time-bound targets for cutting emissions and financing the transition to a low carbon economy; focused efforts on conserving the world’s most threatened forests; effective monitoring of deforestation; improved enforcement of forest and environmental planning laws; new performance-based incentives to reward those most directly responsible for good forest stewardship and preventing forest loss; and deforestation-free business behaviour.

By what methods do you intend to encourage bio-energy and carbon plantations? What will be the advantages of doing so?

Badly managed bio-energy expansion could destroy valuable ecosystems, undermine food and water security, harm rural communities and prolong wasteful energy consumption. But well-managed bio-energy production can provide energy security, rural development, greenhouse gas emission reductions and incentives for good forest stewardship. Getting it right will depend on the policies and incentives that guide bio-energy development and the practices used in establishing and managing bio-energy crops and plantations. Measures that could help develop efficient, fair and sustainable bio-energy include a reduction in overall energy demand; regulations and standards to ensure bio-energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions and does not negatively affect biodiversity, food security, water resources or people’s rights and livelihoods; and researching new renewable energy technologies that require less land and water.

‘Carbon plantations’ are likely to have a positive effect on the climate, provided they are managed sustainably and don’t replace natural or semi-natural forests. Carbon markets are not yet a major driver of plantation expansion; however, a growing number of policies and market mechanisms are focusing attention on the potential for plantations to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Establishing new plantations for bio-energy, carbon or wood production at the scale and pace needed to meet projected future demand, presents many challenges: how to make enough land available without conversion of natural forests and shrub-lands; how to intensify land-use without depleting aquifers or increasing pollution from fertilisers or pesticides; and how to safeguard the rights and livelihoods of rural communities and forest-dependant peoples, and ensure they participate meaningfully in land-use decisions.

WWF coordinates the New Generation Plantations project to address some of these challenges. The project draws on the combined experience of industry leaders, government forestry agencies and WWF’s own expertise to develop pathways to more sustainable plantations. New Generation Plantations are defined as those that maintain ecosystem integrity, protect high conservation values, are developed through effective stakeholder participation processes, and contribute to economic growth and employment.

For many years, there has been an issue with larger companies taking over big areas of forest. This not only destroys the environment but leaves smaller companies and locals with less land and less income. What are your views on this matter? How do you think it can be prevented?

The global ‘land grab’ over the last decade has caused many problems including displacement of poor rural farmers and forest-dependent communities, over-burdened rivers running dry due to unprecedented expansion of irrigated farming and conversion of natural ecosystems to plantations, pastures and croplands. However, it is far too simplistic to oppose all expansion of agri-business and industrial forestry on grounds that it is socially and environmentally harmful.

The ‘land grab’ is a response to increasing global demand for food, materials and bio-energy. As we get closer to 2050, the global population is projected to pass 9 billion and have a higher average income. Major systematic shifts will be needed for the Earth to supply food and materials to this many people, while staying within its carrying capacity. Maintaining near zero forest loss, for example, will require forestry and farming practices that produce more with less land, water and pollution. Private sector investment, know-how and ‘land-grabbing’ could be a means of dramatically boosting productivity in many regions through a mix of better management, selective breeding, more efficient irrigation, smart use of agrochemicals, extension services and support for smallholder out-grower schemes. These productivity gains could reduce the need for activity that degrades forests or converts them to farms.

Clearly, intensification of farming and forestry can have severe impacts on the welfare, cohesion and livelihoods of communities displaced by industrial-scale developments. It can also come at a heavy cost to the local environment – causing impacts such as salinisation, erosion, depleted aquifers, increased energy use, pollution and biodiversity loss.

We all have a huge stake in finding ways to increase agricultural productivity and wood production sustainably. The impact of large forestry and agricultural companies depends on the extent to which environmental and social safeguards are enshrined in regulations, or implemented voluntarily in response to stakeholder demands – through credible forest certification systems, for example. Decisions about land use need to be made carefully. The participation of all key stakeholders is critical to finding solutions that balance top-down global priorities, such as feeding the growing human population and halting deforestation, with bottom-up concerns and respect for the rights and aspirations of local communities.