Locals 'can play key role in helping forests recover'

Assisted natural regeneration project, Philippines (Patrick Durst/FAO) The FAO report said the Asia-Pacific region, in recent years, had halted the deforestation trend

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Involving local groups has been a key factor in halting the loss of forest cover in the Asia-Pacific region, a UN study has concluded.

The report found that low-cost projects offered communities an incentive to protect the habitats in return for job opportunities and income sources.

Such schemes also enhanced ecosystems, restored biodiversity and increase carbon storage, the authors added.

The results were published at the start of the UN Asia-Pacific Forestry Week.

Despite the threats from illegal deforestation, forest fires and climate change, the Forest Beneath the Grass report - produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) - said the region had "not only stopped the drastic decline in forest cover of the 1990s", but had actually increased tree cover over the past decade.

"The Asia-Pacific region has accomplished this feat of reversing the trend of forest loss faster than any other region in history," said Eduardo Rojas, assistant director-general of the FAO's Forestry Department.

Helping hand

The report credited "assisted natural regeneration" (ANR) projects as one of the key factors in turning the net loss of tree cover into an annual net gain.

ANR is a forest restoration and rehabilitation technique that converts grass dominated areas into productive forests, based on the natural process of plant succession, encouraging the regeneration and growth of indigenous tree species.

One of the most invasive grass species is Imperata cyclindrica, also known as blady grass. Native to the region, it thrives on disturbed soil - such as roadsides and felled forests. Once established, it quickly forms a monoculture and suppresses other species from becoming established.

As opposed to more resource-intensive programmes, such as agro-forestry schemes or large-scale plantation projects, the authors highlighted how ANR schemes were relatively passive and cheap, allowing local communities to become actively involved.

They added that while the vast grasslands provided grazing sites for cattle and roofing material, there were relatively few other benefits when the potential productivity of the area was taken into account.

The scheme follows a number of stages, including:

  • site selection,
  • modifications to encourage growth of preferred species,
  • possible supplementary planting,
  • site protection and monitoring.

"The success of ANR is dependent on the effective involvement of local residents in its implementation," explained FAO senior forestry officer Patrick Durst, who presented the report's findings at a news conference in Beijing.

"It is important that local communities are given incentives and ultimately benefit from [the] programmes."

The benefits come in a number of guises, such as a diversity in harvestable crops, cost-effective land management, hunting grounds, and improved ecological services.

According to the FAO's Global Forest Resources Assessment, the region recorded an average annual net gain of 1.5m hectares of tree cover over the past decade.

However, deforestation remains a global concern, with 13m hectares - with a large volume being primary, natural forests - being lost each year over the same period.

Mr Rojas observed: "The rate of deforestation is still very high in many countries and the area of primary forest - forests undisturbed by human activity - continues to decrease.

"Countries must further strengthen their efforts to better conserve and manage them."

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