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September 12, 2011

Scientists Say Forests Are Key to Preventing Food Insecurity

by Kim Lewis

Scientific research shows that forests are a crucial defense against poverty. A new study says planting trees is critical in preventing famines like the one currently devastating parts of the Horn of Africa.

The report was released by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia. It recommends restoring and preserving dryland forests and planting more trees to provide food, fodder and fertilizer on small farms.

“One of the main problems in the Horn of Africa and certainly in areas of southern Africa is the fact that most of the dry forest ecosystems are extremely fragile,” said Terry Sunderland, senior scientist at CIFOR, who is currently in Nairobi attending meetings on the crisis in the Horn of Africa.

The drylands, he said, are not as productive as humid tropical forests. They are prone to soil erosion depletion after they are cleared, which makes growing crops very difficult.

“There is a strong correlation between maintaining tree coverage and maintaining precipitation. There is strong evidence to suggest when trees are cleared, precipitation drops. The hydrological cycle changes,” said Sunderland, who added that when this happens, drought often follows.

One of the major problems at the moment, particularly in southern and eastern Africa, is the cutting of trees in the dry forests for use in making charcoal, he said. “This is being driven by domestic trade and is also a very lucrative international trade,” said Sunderland.

“There is strong evidence to suggest charcoal is being exported in vast quantities to China for use in smelting work,” said Sunderland. He points out that his organization, CIFOR, is working on a project relating to that trade.

Sunderland says although new research shows trees have an enormously important function in terms of agricultural production, there is little incentive to plant them. “People plant trees on land that belongs to them,” and in Africa much of the land is owned by the state, he said.
But reforestation is crucial, he said, in preventing food insecurity.