“The three Conventions are tree conventions"

Paul Stapleton

…So said World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Chief Scientist Meine van Noordwijk, in view of the important role of trees in conserving biodiversity, reducing the impacts of climate change and protecting the landscape against desertification. Speaking at Tree Diversity Day in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity's COP11 in Hyderabad on 11 October 2012, van Noordwijk noted that tree diversity lies at the nexus of the three Conventions, Biological Diversity, Climate Change and Combatting Desertification.

Tree Diversity Day brought together over 100 participants in the COP. The Day was organized at the Rio Conventions Pavilion by ICRAF on behalf of the CGIAR Forests, Trees and Agroforestry programme, with the collaboration of Bioversity International and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Outside forests and woodlands, trees are essential to agricultural landscapes, grasslands, steppes and deserts. This ecological diversity makes their management and use complex.

In a keynote address, Professor M.S.  Swaminathan of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation said, "Agroforestry is a science by itself and has to maintain its identity. And forestry helps us from a green revolution to an evergreen revolution." He stressed the importance of agroforestry in overcoming nutritional challenges and highlighted its many benefits. Using as an example the very poor people living in the most biodiversity-rich parts of the Great Rift Valley in Africa, he said "Bioresources need to create jobs and livelihoods. This will create prosperity between man and nature." He also raised the novel idea of 'biohappiness,' and the sacred nature of trees to many cultures.

The Day continued with a panel of high-level speakers addressing the question of how to incorporate tree diversity into the current CBD programmes for agriculture and forest biodiversity. The panel included Robert Nasi from CIFOR, Sergio Zelaya of the UNCCD Secretariat, Balakrishna Pisupati from the National Biodiversity Authority, India, Ivonne Higuero from UNEP, Santiago Carrizosa from  UNDP and Heikki Taivanen from the Finnish Environment Institute.

Neil Pratt from the CBD Secretariat highlighted the increasing importance of agroforestry for biodiversity resilience; the CBD Parties have long recognized the importance of agroforestry.  Oudara Souvannavong of FAO stressed that conserving biodiversity and especially intraspecific tree diversity is a dynamic solution to addressing uncertainty, variability and change.

After the Panel, Robert Nasi from CIFOR, Ravi Prabhu from ICRAF and Pablo Eyzaguirre from Bioversity signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) as partners in the CGIAR Research Programme 6 on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry with the Convention on Biological Diversity. CBD Executive Secretary Dr. Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias welcomed the MOU, underscoring the importance of CGIAR's practical on-the-ground knowledge. Immediately afterwards, Dr. Dias and Ravi Prabhu signed another MoU on collaboration between CBD and ICRAF. "Virtually all visual representations of biodiversity have trees in them," said Prabhu. "Through this MoU, we are signing up to sustainable land use and biodiversity conservation, both in forests and agroforestry landscapes."

The Day continued with four technical sessions, the first concerned with the benefits of diversifying and restoring landscape mosaics in the tropics by harnessing tree diversity.  Trees in farm landscapes provide food-producing habitats, including nutritious foods for consumption, the role of soils for production and forests as genetic reservoirs and improved soil properties for advanced crop production.

Judy Loo of Bioversity International led the session and spoke about genetic diversity studies and mapping status and threats for 100 priority tree species in Latin America, an area with a high diversity of tree species. She noted knowledge gaps, including lack of documentation on distribution of tree species and limited understanding about reproduction of many tree species. 

Kaoru Ichikawa, UN University-Institute of Advanced Studies, presented the International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative, saying it aims to facilitate international cooperation on social-ecological production landscapes and seascapes. Tree diversity in such areas in the tropics provides many benefits, including protecting endangered species and increasing habitat connectivity.

Biodiversity for development: human benefits from tree diversity for food, health and nutrition

Micronutrient malnutrition remains a problem of public health concern in most developing countries, partly due to monotonous, cereal-based diets that lack diversity. The emphasis on high-yielding varieties of staple crops such as rice, maize and wheat, which account for 60 percent of the total caloric intake in the human diet, has been accompanied by a decrease in the diversity of vegetable and fruit species consumed. Improving nutrition and health for the poor must increase the availability, affordability and accessibility of a wide range of nutritious foods, by using local biodiversity, improving the nutritional quality of foods, harnessing genetic resources and increasing consumption of nutrient-dense food.

Ramni Jamnadass led the panel and discussed the benefits of agroforestry for livelihoods. She highlighted the functions of tree diversity, including fruits, firewood, medicine, income, timber, fodder and ecosystem services. She said "The future of trees is on farms but we need to be able to supply high-quality planting material."

She emphasized the importance of fruits for improved nutrition and health, saying fruit production is very low in many developing countries, in part due to lack of improved, high-yielding varieties. Trees in forest and growing on agricultural land provide many nutritious foods to support rural families' diets. Special potential for cultivation lies in the great biological diversity within and between species of indigenous foods found growing in tropical forests that are important locally but have to date been under-researched by the scientific community and governments.

Hugo Lamers of Bioversity International, highlighted the community biodiversity management approach, which aims to ensure local community ownership over natural resources. He said farmers are key partners in managing biodiversity and described examples how local communities can collaborate with forestry departments in managing forests and share in the benefits from non-timber forest products.

Climate change and biodiversity: interfacing mitigation and adaptation

Climate change is creating new stresses on natural resources, increasing the urgency for their more effective management. Against this backdrop, forests, woodlands and agroforestry systems, the pillars of the natural resource base and providers of ecosystem services, are the first frontier for increasing and sustaining food production and reducing poverty.

Eike Luedeling from ICRAF introduced the session, saying that climate change affects all elements of landscapes. He pointed out that trees contribute to mitigation and specifically adaptation, through micro-climate effects benefiting people, animals and crops' cross border water effects, closing the hydrological cycle by recycling water through terrestrial evapotranspiration and enhancing soil fertility and reducing livelihood risks.

Maintaining diversity from genes to landscapes through conservation and sustainable use

Decades of efforts to address deforestation and forest degradation have failed to reverse global trends of forest loss. At present, around 16 million hectares of natural forests and tree cover are lost every year. The greatest threats to forests and trees on farms continue to come from agricultural expansion and overexploitation for timber and fuel. Loss of such natural resources has implications for rural poverty reduction and communities where the poor depend on agriculture and natural resources for their livelihood and subsistence.

Manuel Guariguata of CIFOR was running the session and called for coherent thinking about how to manage complex landscapes. He said it is easy to define targets, but it is much more complex to determine how to achieve those targets.

R. Ganesan from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment discussed lessons learned from monitoring tree diversity and estimating ecosystem services values in India. He recommended restoring tree diversity using participatory approaches, beginning with understanding and enhancing the role of tree diversity in livelihoods.

This report is based on the Rio Conventions Pavilion Bulletin account, the New York Times blog "In Hyderabad, a Focus on the World's Shrinking Biodiversity" and other sources.

See the related stories:

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A bit of baobab a day keeps the doctor away: wild fruits help solve Africa’s malnutrition crisis

Farm area ‘the size of Switzerland’ needed to meet India’s biofuel shortage  

Photo courtesy Climate Himalaya