Note: Earth Day, April 22, 2011, coincides with the United Nations Year of Forests. USAID proudly celebrates more than 30 years of supporting projects to promote forest conservation in ways that reduce poverty, combat climate change, and recognize the economic, cultural, and ecological benefits for sustainable development.

Cocoa beans laid out to dry in an indigenous community of Ecuador. Photo credit: S. Lampman USAID/EGAT

Near Ecuador’s border with Colombia, a young boy in a Cofán Indigenous community shares his front yard with drying cocoa beans. His parents have put into practice improved cocoa production techniques such as the grafting of higher yield cocoa varieties onto hardy local stock. As a result, they receive increased yields and incomes, all the while reducing pressure to convert neighboring forests to agricultural lands. Such efforts to support sustainable livelihoods are but one of many tools in the conservation strategy of USAID’s Initiative for Conservation in the Andean Amazon.

From the massive forests of the Congo and Amazon River basins to one of the world’s smallest remnant cloud forests in El Salvador, forest conservation and forest management are inextricably intertwined with development.  Forests cover more than 30 percent of the world’s total land area, and provide significant opportunities to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere.  However, widespread deforestation contributes up to 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually.  Threats to forests include unsustainable management practices, conversion of forested lands to agriculture, illegal logging, fire, disease, and degradation.

Forests provide vital benefits for human well-being, including “provisioning” services (for example, providing food, pollinators, fresh water, wood and fiber, and fuel), “regulating” services (assisting in climate change mitigation, flood control, and disease reduction) and “cultural” services (offering aesthetic, spiritual, and educational benefits, as well as recreational opportunities).

Forests are therefore a critical component of USAID’s approach to development, and our experience over the years has enabled our agency to become one of the global leaders in supporting conservation. Over the last several decades, USAID has been at the forefront of developing and demonstrating new ideas and tools for forest conservation and management. Programs include debt for nature swaps, forest certification, agroforestry, controlling illegal logging, payments for ecosystems services, and promoting community-based forest management.

USAID invested about $110 million annually in forest conservation and sustainable forestry activities implemented in 2009 and 2010, and will continue making strategic investments in forestry going forward. These conservation efforts represent a wide range of activities, such as protection of natural forests, community management of forests for non-timber forest products, agroforestry and reforestation of degraded lands, and research and capacity building activities which help communities and governments benefit from markets for ecosystem services and certified forest products.

We partner with the communities most dependent on natural resources and engage community groups, local governments, and private enterprises to manage protected areas and share revenue. Workers find new ways to provide for their families that help protect biodiversity, such as sustainable fishing and forestry, ecotourism, harvesting of non-timber forest products, and direct payments for avoiding deforestation and maintaining ecosystem services such as carbon storage, water and air filtration, and recreational opportunities.

For example, in Kenya, we support a program which encourages small farmers to plant trees on their land. They then receive a few cents for each year the trees are in place. These trees reduce soil erosion, provide fodder for livestock, and during stand thinnings, generate income from the sale of poles and timber. Additionally, the farmers have a contract with a U.S.-based carbon broker, which will allow them to receive 70 percent of the profits generated by any sale of carbon credits in the future.

As we look to the future, new global trends will create both challenges and opportunities. For example, USAID is committed to addressing global climate change by conserving and restoring the world’s forests. The application of innovative economic approaches, new science and satellite data, and lessons learned on effective community management can lead to better use of forests and related lands that can help improve livelihoods, and reduce emissions and impacts from climate change.

Internationally, this new global forest initiative is referred to as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) (PDF).  At the Copenhagen climate summit in December of 2009, the Obama Administration committed to help countries slow down and eventually reverse emissions from deforestation and degradation, and maintain and increase carbon stocks. USAID is one of the lead agencies responsible for designing and implementing programs to support this new U.S. government global commitment.

Whether saving species from the brink of extinction, combating climate change, preserving livelihoods, or proactively planning for sustainable development, forest conservation requires collaborative stewardship and good governance at all levels – from government institutions to community organizations.

Working together, we hope to achieve a healthy and sustainable future.