How to protect rainforests' biodiversity and meet human demand
Tropical forests are the natural champions of climate change mitigation. Even though they cover only 7-10% of the Earth’s total land surface they hold one of the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon stores and are home to over half of the planet’s species.
Yet little is known about how biodiversity helps mitigate climate change, or whether it is possible to use this biodiversity sustainably to meet human demand. The European Union (EU)-funded project ROBIN is working to answer these questions.
“Most people agree that rainforests and their biodiversity mitigate climate change and need to be preserved. But these forests should also meet the needs of local communities and national demands. ROBIN research team is trying to provide information to help decision makers meet these frequently conflicting needs,” explains ROBIN coordinator, Dr. Terry Parr from the United Kingdom’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
The benefits tropical forests provide to surrounding populations and the global community are known as ecosystem services. They include the provision of resources (such as food or firewood), carbon storage, water purification, flood and erosion control, and disease mitigation. Often when a forest is damaged or cut down, it is because a landowner has found a single, economically more profitable use for it such as farming, cattle ranching or mining. These decisions, however, usually fail to take into account the other services, such as food, forests provide.
With researchers from twelve organisations in Europe and Latin America (Mexico, Bolivia, Guyana and Brazil), ROBIN project team is working at 15 multi-functional landscape sites in tropical forest areas in Latin America to understand the trade-offs that often take place when land is used to deliver multiple ecosystem services. Long-term impacts of climate change and land-use change scenarios are also being examined, and the project team is working with local stakeholders – including farmers, foresters, and conservationists – to understand their views and requirements. By combining these approaches ROBIN project has already uncovered new opportunities to maintain and increase biodiversity and carbon stocks that simultaneously deliver a wider range of ecosystem services.
“We are making recommendations for all levels – local, national and international,” says Parr. On an international level, the project is drafting recommendations on how to monitor programmes such as the United Nations’ (UN) REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which help developing countries conserve forests.
“We want to make sure that private and public resources from funding programmes such as REDD+, which are result orientated, are spent in the most effective ways,” comments Parr. Parr describes that at times “an exclusive focus on climate change mitigation can lead to perverse courses of action, such as when forests have been cut down for biofuels.” A more holistic approach – such as the one taken by the project ROBIN – is expected to minimise the risk of such short-sighted acts. “This is the first project that has adopted this holistic approach on such a wide-scale. And that is exactly what a complex problem like climate change mitigation needs,” he points out. “It is also what makes us hopeful that our recommendations will have a significant impact.”
On a national level, governments have already taken note of ROBIN’s findings. For instance, Mexican government agencies are implementing a method devised by ROBIN’s Mexican partners based on a combination of remote sensing and on the ground surveying to assess the health and functionality of its forest landscapes using an indicator known as “ecosystem integrity”.
“At the end of the day both the smaller scale requirements of local communities as well as national and international goals of climate change mitigation need to be met,” says Parr. “ROBIN is doing just that by improving our understanding of how much biodiversity is needed to achieve climate change mitigation without neglecting the needs of the communities that depend upon the land and its biodiversity,” he concludes.