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Once forests and trees have disappeared, so too will the integrity of the soil and water systems they supported -- often permanently.
Imagine an area the size of Belgium, blanketed by forests and trees which provide food, fuel, medicine, shelter and incomes for local habitants while conserving soil and water for farms and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
Now, imagine that area stripped entirely of its trees. This is the amount of forest area lost to the world each year and the final cost of this deforestation is almost beyond measure, with an impact extending far beyond the forest itself.
Once forests and trees have disappeared, so too will the integrity of the soil and water systems they supported - often permanently. 75 percent of all freshwater for farms, industry and homes comes from forests and wetlands. Forests also sequester more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem and when they are destroyed, this carbon is released back into the atmosphere, impacting adversely on the global climate.
Deforestation's negative impacts for people and the environment are thus far-reaching and serious. Increased forest loss also means that, without major corrections in land use, the world will probably fail to meet crucial global targets, particularly the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Such a setback will also have ramifications for SDG-defined action on eradicating hunger and poverty, preserving health and fighting climate change - targets that rely heavily on the goods and services that forests provide.
To put this degree of interdependence into perspective, we need to look at SDG 15 on "Life on Land"; progress on which will be the focus of high-level UN reviews later this year. It calls for deforestation to be halted by 2020, a highly ambitious target. It also requires the world to ensure that forests are managed sustainably and that we protect biodiversity, restore, and promote the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, and halt and reverse land degradation.
None of these measures can be achieved if forests are not included at the heart of policies, development strategies and actions that go far beyond the forest sector.
In fact, many drivers of deforestation lie outside the forest sector and are rooted in wider social and economic issues, including challenges related to reducing poverty, and policies that favor land uses which produce higher and more rapid financial returns, including energy, mining, transportation, and agriculture.
Further, a growing world population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 makes it critically important to find ways to feed people while maintaining and expanding forests to meet other human needs. This can be done. Research published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has shown how, over the past quarter-century, more than 20 countries have improved food security while at the same time maintaining or increasing their forest cover. Food production can expand through agricultural intensification and other important policy measures.
Viet Nam, Ghana, and Tunisia are just a few examples from very different countries that all show strong results when decision-makers coordinate policies across sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, land-use planning, and rights to land tenure.
Sharing expertise and increasing awareness is a critical part of this process. Governments at all levels must work closely with indigenous peoples, community representatives, private-sector associations and international organizations. Corporate responsibility commitments by large corporations operating in the agricultural sector are equally important. An inclusive and broad engagement can lead to a re-evaluation of the role of forests in agriculture production. Innovative technology must be shared and applied to a greater degree, international financial instruments and private-public partnerships considered, and governance issues, including tenure, reviewed.
There is no time to waste. Halting and reversing deforestation globally presents an enormous challenge and will require both political will and concerted action across all sectors at all levels. This effort may influence pivotal decisions expected this year when the United Nations takes stock of progress toward the SDGs in July, which will in turn influence follow-up actions by states, business, and civil-society partners at all levels. With collective action now, we can address the global challenge of deforestation, achieve our targets, and ensure that the world today, and in the future, continues to enjoy all of the goods and services that forests provide.
Eva Muller is director of the forestry policy and resources division at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)