Investing in degraded forest land for the health of our economic system

Investing in degraded forest land for the health of our economic system

Forest health is also intricately connected with human health outcome

India is on track to restore 26 million hectares (mha) of degraded land in order to achieve land degradation neutrality by 2030, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced recently. He was speaking at the high-level virtual dialogue on desertification, land degradation and drought organised by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York.

Managing land resources is crucial to not only achieving climate targets by way of carbon sequestration and other pathways, but also in securing the United Nations-mandated sustainable development goals (SDG) equitably.

Nature-based sustainable practices and regenerative solutions of the forestry sector can bring socially equitable transition into a ‘circular bioeconomy’ that aims at building natural capital rather than diminishing it.

From this perspective, it is necessary to understand the multiple benefits that are associated with arresting land degradation and desertification, along with their associated economics.

Impact of forest land degradation

Globally, almost 30 per cent of the total land area is degraded and nearly 3 billion people live on degraded land. The economic cost of land degradation is approximately $300 billion annually (Rs 22 lakh crore).

Agricultural productivity is heavily dependent on soil fertility and availability of water. An important ecosystem service provided by the forest is to prevent soil erosion and provision as well as regulate water supply.

In India, forest land degradation is affecting rural economy and our ability to combat climate change. It is also adversely impacting India’s targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions according to the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Forest health, economic growth

The health of our forest ecosystems has an impact on other sectors such as agriculture, energy, tourism, and health. For example, a World Bank project found that support for small and medium forest improved the quality of dense forest cover and reduced seasonal outmigration by 23 per cent, while increasing real cash income among forest users' groups by 53 per cent.

Forest dependent growth strategies have adaptation and mitigation potentials, along with fulfilling livelihood outcomes. Forest health is also intricately connected with human health outcomes.

A study in Cambodia found that by enabling water regulation cycles, forests reduce the microbial load of downstream communities. Forest land degradation resulting from human activity would have a spiraling impact on dependent communities and by extension, the larger economy.

Forests and green jobs

The current economic crisis presents a unique opportunity for moving towards a greener future by giving a major thrust to the forest sector that will generate employment, create real and durable assets and help rebuild rural India.

Green jobs require low capital investment, generate multiplier effect through purchase of goods and services locally and remain highly adaptive to changing scenarios.

In India, roughly 250 million people are fully or partially dependent on forest and a majority of them belong to economically backward groups, who would benefit from the tailoring of public works programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 to generate jobs in the forestry sector.

Apart from bolstering the rural economy, these green jobs will also restrict land degradation and help in the fulfillment of several SDGs.

Investing in forests to avert future pandemics

Forest health has a close relation with the outbreak of zoonotic diseases. A three-pronged strategy consisting of reducing deforestation, restricting wildlife trade and building early detection and control mechanisms can potentially reduce the risk of future pandemics, according to a study recently published in the journal Science.

The study found that, an investment of $9.6 billion (Rs 71,000 crore) as direct forest protection payments to prevent deforestation can reduce risk of forest loss-related disease spillover in the high-risk areas by 40 per cent.

The overwhelming benefits of forest ecosystems are proven and can be linked with public health. India can, therefore, formulate appropriate economic incentives through public finance schemes and other measures to promote growth in the sector.

In the post-COVID-19 world, pandemic resilience is going to be a significant indicator in maintaining investors’ confidence across all sectors.   

Policy mechanisms are crucial

India has taken on a challenge to restore 26 mha degraded land as part of the UNCCD commitments. Degraded forest lands comprise about 81 per cent of this target, with 5 mha lying outside forests.

This is because, as a policy action, arresting forest land degradation is the most cost-effective option to attain various SDGs. This is especially true in urban areas, where the benefits of greening are greatly undervalued.

It is also important to highlight that 2021-30 has been declared as the decade of ecosystem restoration by UN to emphasise the need to restore ecosystems for combating climate change, biodiversity depletion and sustainability challenges.

Understanding the economics of forest land degradation is, therefore, crucial to designing the appropriate policy mechanisms to improve the health of degraded forest ecosystems and restrict human activities in such areas.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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