Urgency at IUFRO congress, largest gathering of forest researchers ever

The 24th Congress of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) started with a bang on 6 October in Salt Lake City, Utah, as keynote speaker Robert Bonnie laid out graphic statistics on the impact of climate change on American forests. The USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment said that 47 million acres are being laid to waste by bark beetles and that the fire season is an astounding 60-80 days longer than it was in the past.

“Forest fires are different today,” said Bonnie, who was formerly Environmental Defence Fund vice-president for land conservation. “In the 1960s, fire occurred on 3.5 million acres every year and consumed 16% of the Forest Service budget. Today it occurs on 7.5 million acres a year and consumes 42% of the budget. The service has had to reduce its staff by one third to fight fires.”

FAO’s assistant director general for forests also spoke with passion. Eduardo Roja Brijales reminded scientists that while “sound research must acknowledge lots of caveats”, forest restoration needed to accelerate. He said that corporate interests were fanning deforestation, which needed to be brought down.

Forests satisfy the demand for goods and services, said the UN official, but more attention needed to be paid to enabling upstream communities to deliver those goods and services sustainably. “There have been many failures of projects that do not look at equity. We need monitoring of social perceptions of forests and evidenced-based information on forests to support political decisions”

The five day congress, held every five years, gathers almost 4000 delegates. IUFRO has 16,000 members worldwide. The Congress theme is “Sustaining forests, sustaining people” but there is also a focus on wildlife. A delegate from Benin is presenting on conflicts between otters and fishermen. Monday’s line-up included presentations on gums and resins in Ethiopia, snow melt in Alaska, and regeneration in South Korea, which took the country’s forest cover from 10% in the 1930s to 63% today.

At the IUFRO director’s forum ICRAF’s Director General spoke to a packed audience including deans of forestry faculties and head of environmental institutions. Asked to comment on regional differences in research and specific challenges for Africa, Tony Simons said “The challenges are enormous. Take Sweden and Malawi – similar land areas, similar populations. But Sweden spends 300 times the amount on research than Malawi does. So there’s a huge asymmetry.”

ICRAF DG Tony Simons with Dr Jimmy Reaves, the US Forest Service Deputy Chief of Research and Development.

ICRAF DG Tony Simons with Dr Jimmy Reaves, the US Forest Service Deputy Chief of Research and Development.

Simons also spoke of the “disconnect about the value of research.” “IUFRO is about building up science knowledge. But when you are doing research in developing countries, you are rarely funded by the Royal Society or National Science Foundation, for instance. You are funded by donor agencies that say we want a proposal, we love what ICRAF does, and we love what your developing country partners do. But please don’t write the word research. So we ask — are we allowed to test options, solve problems, do semi-structured learning? And they yes, great, you’ve got it — just don’t do any research. So we have to build back that confidence in research.”

“In developing countries, it is particularly hard, particularly when we are dealing with very fragmented ministries Do we go to the ministry of agriculture or water or forests? Timescale is important too. In developing countries, it is hard to have a long term timescale where the directors in research institutes have to spend 90% of their recurrent budget on salaries – there’s not much freedom to operate.”

Simons appealed to IUFRO to bring in developing countries much more. IUFROM has a programme for developing countries but “let’s reinforce it,” said ICRAF’s DG. “At the next congress in 2019, let’s have a speed dating session where those universities and scientific institutes in the north can engage better with those in the south.”

In the same session, agroforestry, ICRAF’s mandate, featured highly in the statements of the Deputy Under Secretary of Research, Education and Economics in US Department of Agriculture. “When I started managing forest research in the 1980s, I had a couple of agroforestry projects in Florida,” said Anne Bartuska. “It was tropical forestry and you could never get a lot of interest. Recently I have been in a host of food security, food and agriculture, and development meetings in other countries, and agroforestry is coming up in every single one. And it is not only the smallholder farmers in Africa, which is certainly a critical part, but also the smallholder farmers in the USA that are looking at agroforestry as a way to link, at a landscape level, fruits and vegetables and the sustained supply of wood for other values. Carbon markets and bioenergy are helping bring those pieces together. It’s a really interesting change.”

The US Forest Service Deputy Chief of Research and Development etched out changes in forestry. “We have moved from forest protection and plantations to holistic concepts like ecosystem services,” said Dr Jimmy Reaves. He said that biodiversity and climate change were top research concerns, according to a survey of IUFRO members, and that water for the first time is in the top three.

Many ICRAF scientists are presenting at the congress. Catherine Muthuri is speaking on Tree crop water interactions and their significance to food security, at an event co-organised by FAO and ICRAF’s Maimbo Malesu. Valentina Rodiglio is addressing frontier landscapes in the Peruvian Amazon and options for smallholders along the forest transition curve. Assistant Director General Margaret Kroma is hosting a gathering to further an international agroforestry union. Meine van Noordwijk is presenting on the scaling of uncertainty in carbon emission estimates and implications for locally appropriate designs to reduce emissions from degradation, deforestation and agroforestation in landscape mosaics. And Peter Minang is leading a large session on forest margins.

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Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has almost 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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