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People living in and around tropical forests need to play a bigger role in woodland management to reduce the environmental degradation that affects three-quarters of the world’s forests, say researchers.

A study published in Science last month (21 August) found that Earth has lost 100 million hectares of tropical forest in the past 30 years – an area about three times the size of Germany. However, people living directly off forest resources have the skills and knowledge to use their surrounding woodland sustainably, the study states.

“For the poorest of the poor, forest products are fundamental to their very basic needs — food, shelter, fuel and cultural values.”

David Edwards, University of Sheffield

Their strategies for resource management should be rolled out to prevent tropical forests from being left in a “fragmented, simplified and degraded state”, says Simon Lewis, a researcher at the geography department of University College London, United Kingdom, and lead author of the study.

The paper is part of a Science special issue summarising the latest research on forest health and management.

The scientists used tree and population records and archaeological evidence to define different phases of how humans have interacted with tropical forests in the past. They found that throughout history humans maintained the overall health of tropical forests, but that this changed in the late 19th century with industrialisation because of the needs of the global economy and the impact of climate change.

In particular, seasonal woodland at the fringe of large tropical forest areas was sustainably managed for thousands of years until the early nineteenth century, before suffering extreme degradation as industrialised logging and farming took hold.

According to the research, this is because modern agriculture and the trade in palm oil and wood need roads and farm space, which partition forests into unsustainable sections.

The study states that only one quarter of global tropical forest remains pristine today.

However, the researchers admit that there are complicated obstacles to turning people into forest stewards. 

“These problems are political, in obtaining the land rights, and then local, in [helping people with] defending their land boundaries from illegal encroachment,” says co-author David Edwards, a conservation researcher at the University of Sheffield. “My feeling is that the former is the much harder challenge.”

The paper chimes with research by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which found that people living near forests have the knowledge and techniques needed for sustainable forest use. “These processes may be imperfect, but they often represent viable attempts to achieve sustainable use,” the FAO states in a brief. Giving land management rights to forest inhabitants also helps these communities, who are often poor and politically marginalised, says Benjamin Hodgdon, a senior technical manager at the Rainforest Alliance. “For the poorest of the poor, forest products are fundamental to their very basic needs — food, shelter, fuel and cultural values,” he says.


Lewis and others Increasing human dominance of tropical forests (Science, 2015)