FAO in North America

Interview: FAO Washington Director Attends North American Forestry Commission Session

Submitted by Lívia Pontes on June 17, 2014

©FAO/Vasily Maksimov

With changes in the global climate, forestry resources from the United States, Canada and Mexico have faced increasing challenges, including longer-lasting droughts, intensified wildfires and outbreaks of pests and disease. And the relationship between forests and individuals is also in flux, as most of the region’s population lives in urban areas for the first time in history. Between June 11 and 13, 2014, the North American Forestry Commission (NAFC) held its 27th session in Madison, Wisconsin, to discuss some of these pressing issues. NAFC is one of six Regional Forestry Commissions established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to provide a policy and technical forum for countries to discuss and address forest issues on a regional basis.

FAO participated in the event with the presence of Assistant Director-General and head of FAO forestry department Eduardo Rojas, Peter Csoka, Secretary of the Committee on Forestry (COFO), and FAO Washington’s Director, Nicholas Nelson. In an interview with FAO Washington’s blog, Mr. Nelson shared some of his impressions of the event.

In presenting FAO’s new strategic objectives, FAO officials at the event focused in part on the relationship between forestry, food security and nutrition, which may not always appear obvious. How do those three things intersect?

Here are some examples: deforestation triggered by escalating demand for food, fibre and fuel is degrading ecosystems, diminishing water availability and limiting the collection of fuelwood – all of which reduce food security, especially for the poor.

In addition, natural forests are critical for the survival of forest-dwellers, including many indigenous peoples, and they help deliver clean water to agricultural lands by protecting catchments. Farmers increase food security by retaining trees on agricultural land, by encouraging natural regeneration and by planting trees and other forest plants. For most of the year, herders in arid and semi-arid lands depend on trees as a source of fodder for their livestock.

It’s clear that forests, trees and agroforestry systems contribute to food security and nutrition in many ways, but such contributions are usually poorly reflected in national development and food security strategies. Coupled with poor coordination between sectors, the net result is that forests are often left out of policy decisions related to food security and nutrition. That’s why the regional forestry commissions are so important in raising the profile of forestry.

With climate change, which has led to more droughts and wildfires, the United States, Canada and Mexico face a bigger challenge in fire management. You mentioned previously that you were impressed by the level of collaboration on wildfires between these three countries. Why?

I learned that fighting a severe wildfire can be a dramatic event, and the effort to limit and suppress a wildfire can quickly pin down all available manpower and resources such as equipment and air support. In particular, the number of experts who can understand a fire’s behaviour and direct counter-measures is actually quite limited, so when these individuals are deployed for days on end battling a fire, I was impressed that the collaboration between the U.S., Canada and Mexico includes sending each other relief teams of experts to step in and ensure continued, effective command and control efforts in battling a wildfire.

During the event there was also a discussion on forests in the cities, particularly in the U.S.; an important issue since this is the first century in which most people live in urban and not rural areas. Were there any innovative initiatives that stood out for you?

Today many cities across the country and the world are engaged in developing new strategies to reduce carbon emissions and protect and enhance efficiency in the use of our environmental resources. Tree planting has a direct impact on energy conservation, air quality, soil erosion and storm water maintenance—major efforts currently pursued internationally in strategies geared at mitigating the impact of climate changes and global warming. I was impressed with the MillionTreesNYC initiative which stood out as one of the best examples of a strategy to address critical issues of climate change and environmental sustainability. In support of the MillionTreesNYC project, U.S. Forest Service researchers compiled an Urban Forestry Bibliography with guidance from the MillionTreesNYC Research Committee. The success of this effort in planting about a million trees over a decade through a public-private partnership can be transferred to any number of cities around the world, and MillionTreesNYC is considered a model initiative from which many other municipalities have benefitted. Examples of other cities doing the same include Los Angeles, CA, Chicago, IL, and Syracuse, NY, Salt Lake City, UT, Philadelphia, PA, Baltimore, MD, and Washington, DC.

The NAFC addressed the forestry market as well. Canada’s wood industry for homebuilding suffered with the housing crisis of 2008/09, but they have come up with new ways to approach the market. Can you tell us some of what you learned in that area, and whether that can serve as an example for other similar sectors in North America?

Well, Canada is the second largest exporter of primary forest products in the world, (after the U.S.) and Canada’s forest sector is among the top five contributors to the nation’s net trade. The U.S. and Western Europe have long been the major markets for Canadian forest products. So when Canada faced the worldwide economic downturn and the housing crisis, they also had to deal with a strengthening Canadian dollar, a structural decline in North American newsprint demand and increased competition from other forest product suppliers. The Canadian officials at the NAFC showed us how they are transforming their export markets by building on the strength of the sector’s traditional high quality wood fibre products. Today, for example, China and other Asian countries have become increasingly significant new markets for Canada’s products, helping to offset the declines seen in traditional markets over recent years. Natural Resources Canada, through its Expanding Market Opportunities Program and the North American Wood First Program, is helping the country’s producers diversify and expand into emerging markets in Asia and Europe as well as into non-traditional markets in North America, especially by promoting the advantages of large-size (up to 10-12 floors) wooden buildings over concrete/steel structures.

The FAO in North America Series highlights FAO’s collaboration and work with organizations and institutions in the United States and Canada.  From the voices of visiting experts, FAO staff in Washington, DC, and partners of FAO learn how FAO is engaging in the North American region to achieve our five strategic objectives.

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