Re-connecting forests and people

Local action for woodland creation in the UK.

Last month the ninth biennial State of the World’s Forests report was released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. It highlights four areas that warrant further attention: regional trends on forest resources, the development of sustainable forest industries, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the local value of forests.

But running through all of these is the idea that we are dependent on forests for all sorts of things – and forests can make a big contribution to people’s livelihoods and thus to improving their quality of life.  It’s no coincidence that this is the thrust of the UN’s report in the year it has designated International Year of Forests, with an emphasis on the connections between forests and people.

“What we need during the International Year of Forests is to emphasize the connection between people and forests, and the benefits that can accrue when forests are managed by local people in sustainable and innovative ways,” Eduardo Rojas, FAO’s Assistant Director-General for Forestry, has said.

In the UK, forests take up only 12% of our land and the forestry industry is small compared for example with the farming sector. Much of our timber production is large-scale and industrial, carried out by contractors and specialists. While we all use wood and wood-based products, very few people depend directly and solely on forests and woods for their livelihood, and many people don’t feel a direct connection with woods, particularly as working landscapes.

They are taken for granted, yet woods and trees are working for us, helping provide clean air and water, reducing flooding, sheltering our buildings, cooling our cities and towns in summer. Woods and trees are a valuable part of “natural capital”, the ecosystems that provide us with vital life support services, and the potential to sustain these into the future.

We think improving the connection between people and forests need not be confined to the developing world. There may not be the same urgency to alleviate extreme poverty here, but empowering communities to create a more wooded landscape in the UK has potential to enrich all our lives.

The Coalition Government’s ‘localism’ agenda could offer communities the chance to shape their local landscape to provide the goods and services they need, for example  by creating their own new community woodland that will alleviate flood risk or provide a sustainable source of woodfuel, or by working with local government to increase the number of trees in an urban landscape to reduce air pollution and urban heat island effect.

None of this will happen on its own. The UN report talks of the need for “enabling policy frameworks” that are required for community-based forest management and this applies to community-led woodland creation  in the UK too. Funding to acquire land and plant it, tailored governance models for community woodland groups, and investment in building skills and knowledge are all needed in order to reap the rewards of greater community empowerment, and a stronger connection between people, trees and woods.

Sian Atkinson, Conservation Team Leader

About Kaye Brennan

Trying vegan, staying warm. Occasional bursts of words.
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