Forests are vital to human survival. About 1.3 billion–1.6 billion people depend on forests for food, energy, timber and many other uses. But rampant deforestation has meant the loss of nearly one half of the Earth’s tropical forests cut over the past half a century. This puts pressure on policymakers, local communities and private companies to find better and more sustainable ways of using forest resources. The raging man-made forest fires in Indonesia are just one example of deteriorating conditions and their adverse effects for the country, its neighbors and the planet.

A recent learning event “Managing Forest Resources for Sustainable Development” brought out relevant knowledge from the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) of the World Bank Group, the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Independent Evaluation Department and the Environment Community of Practice, and the World Resources Institute (WRI). Despite the twelve hour time difference between the participating countries, the event drew a large attendance and brought out enthusiasm around this issue.

At the event, IEG highlighted the findings from its recent evaluation of the World Bank Group Experience with Managing Forest Resources for Sustainable Development. The evaluation covers Bank Group’s work after 2002, when it shifted the focus of its forest strategy. "This shift allowed the Bank Group to expand its work in all forest types, establish a set of safeguards to integrate forest resource management into sustainable economic development agenda, and most importantly, strive to balance its efforts and objectives in the three critical areas of poverty alleviation, enhancement of the economic value of forests and forest conservation. Instituting this strategic change was much needed and commendable, and it is still relevant today." – said Marvin Taylor-Dormond, Director, Private Sector Evaluations.

IEG found that participatory forest management has been the most successful at balancing the threefold goal of forest conservation, poverty alleviation, and economic development. Mexico’s community forest management program offers an excellent example in this regard, along with positive experiences in India, Tanzania, and Albania. However, neglect of the informal sector has resulted in missed opportunities to reach more of the rural forest-dependent poor. "In many client countries, regulations have criminalized rather than regularized the collection or production and sale of timber and non-timber forest products. Heavy fees and fines along the forest product value chain—or regulations that allow for the sale of these products to be conducted by only a licensed few—tax the forest-dependent poor." – said the lead author of the study, Lauren Kelly.

In protected area projects, IEG found that trade-offs still exist between conservation and poverty alleviation goals. Going forward, the projects implemented in protected areas need to do a better job of articulating how poverty alleviation will be conceptualized and incorporated into project design. In the case of industrial timber concessions, support for legal and regulatory reform has improved forest governance and enhanced transparency and accountability. The evaluation also finds that significant challenges remain with respect to revenue capture, revenue redistribution, and environmental management, among others.

Forest-related investments supported by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have generally yielded higher value-added products and increased productivity and production capacity. “To ensure sustainable forest management practices, however, certification of forest operations needs to be strengthened along the value chain. IFC could also have a more catalytic effect on sustainable forest management if its investments were more strategically placed.” – said Stoyan Tenev, Manager, Private Sector Evaluations.   

With the collapse of forest-related carbon markets and the failure thus far of approaches toward Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation  (REDD+) to achieve its forest-related climate change goals, IEG finds the strategy of  sustaining a ‘no regrets’ portfolio of forest investments that pursue adaptation and mitigation goals within the broader landscape agenda very important. At the same time, given the Bank’s leadership role in initiating and building a platform for REDD+ as well as associated market-based instruments, the World Bank Group will need to maintain a clear and direct line of communication with clients at the national and subnational levels –whose expectations for future finance have been raised through these initiatives.

At the event, ADB’s Director General of Independent Evaluation, Vinod Thomas, highlighted the risks and opportunity in this area saying:  "Forests are the quintessential example of gains from pursuing the triple bottom line of growth, equity and sustainability.  But we are yet to grasp this opportunity because of vested interests that stand to lose from the pursuit of such a triple bottom line.  Building on the positive examples that the IEG evaluation eloquently presents, countries and multilateral organizations need to revisit approaches to forest management for a viable way forward."

In its evaluation, IEG recommended an expansion of support for participatory forest management (including attention to regulatory barriers), more meaningful community participation in the design and management of protected areas, and the use of improved monitoring and evaluation indicators. Certainly, building on approaches that have worked—as well as searching for innovative solutions to new challenges—will be extremely important for sustainable forest management. In challenging environments, such as in fragile and conflict-affected states, support for industrial logging regimes or operations should be preceded by a rigorous review of the expected economic, environmental, and poverty related outcomes, including an analysis of expected outcomes under alternative land use schemes.  The evaluation also proposed the use of experience gained by IFC’s advisory services to mitigate upstream investment risks, to better attend to issues of land tenure, resource rights and competing land use claims.

Engaging local communities and the broader public in forest management issues has become easier as modern technologies become more sophisticated and accessible.  Manish Bapna, Executive Vice President and Managing Director of the WRI pointed out that “Recent advances in technology will enable us to provide near real-time, highly granular information on forest cover. This transformation in transparency will go a long way to rooting out corruption and improving the sustainable management of forests.” He presented the recently launched WRI initiative called Global Forest Watch 2.0, which was developed in partnership with Google, the University of Maryland, the UN Environment Program, and other organizations.  This work sets up a powerful near real-time forest monitoring system that brings together satellite technology, data sharing, and human networks around the world to fight deforestation, create transparency, and help promote accountability for forest management. The system uses cloud computing and open source software to rapidly process and interpret large volumes of satellite data at low cost by utilizing clusters of servers scattered around the world.

The data generated from the platform is hoped to help diverse groups of stakeholders, including governments, buyers and suppliers of sustainable commodities, media and non-profit organizations working on forest conservation. For instance, the platform is designed to be a trusted, independent, and user-friendly way to help investors in REDD+ and other forest conservation projects monitor performance and hold countries accountable to their commitments on greenhouse gas emission reductions and forest conservation. Another potential use of this data could by the media to ring the alarm bell on deforestation hotspots around the globe at a pace never-before-possible, and thereby put pressure on governments, companies, and others to curtail forest conversion and illegal logging in time.

The discussion further linked environmental sustainability with opportunities for economic growth and poverty. The urgency of finding such solutions is heightened by the role deforestation plays in augmenting the risks of climate change.


Note:  The event was chaired by Akmal Siddiq, Director at ADB and coordinated by Daniele Ponzi, Lead Environment Specialist at ADB.