Tropical forests—the rich home of biodiversity. Celebrating the International Day of Forests

21 March 2020, Yokohama, Japan

An ITTO project in Benin has reintroduced more than 1100 individuals of fauna species—such as this Nile lizard—in eight sacred forests. Photo: michaklootwijk/iStock

Tropical forests cover a small fraction of the Earth but are estimated to harbour more than half its terrestrial plant and animal species. ITTO develops policies and funds projects to conserve this rich biodiversity while also improving the well-being of forest-dependent people. Read on to learn about the Organization’s efforts in Benin’s sacred forests and Indonesia’s Cibodas Biosphere Reserve.

Biodiversity in Benin’s sacred forest

Sacred forests are forests maintained by local communities for religious reasons. They may only be small in area but are often rich in biodiversity and play important ecological, cultural and spiritual roles. Benin has at least 2940 sacred forests covering a total area of 18 360 hectares. Many have become degraded, however, by uncontrolled exploitation, conversion to agriculture, urban pressures, strong demand for woodfuel, rural poverty and the loss of religious beliefs. As part of efforts to tackle this problem, ITTO is funding a project, Rehabilitation and sustainable management of sacred forests on RAMSAR sites 1017 and 1018, aimed at conserving some of Benin’s sacred forests and ensuring the sustainable management of their buffer zones.

Under the project, 42 sacred forests have been legally recognized and demarcated, and simple forest management plans have been developed to enable forest communities to better manage their natural resources. More than 150 hectares of sacred forests have been enriched with seedlings of valuable trees—some of them listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species—such as African mahogany (Khaya senegalensis); iroko (Milicia excelsa); limba (Terminalia superba); ayous (Triplochiton scleroxylon); and baobab (Adansonia digitata). These trees provide habitat for many rare animal species, including some listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which restricts the international trade of these species in an effort to protect them.

Awareness-raising activities with local communities has enabled the reintroduction of more than 1100 individuals of fauna species in eight sacred forests, including ball python (Python regius)—consider a deity; savannah and Nile lizards (Varanus exanthematicus and Varanus niloticus); chameleons (Chamaeleo gracilis and Chamaeleo senegalensis); and nagapies (Galago spp.). Other species, such as the red-bellied monkey (Cercopithecus erythrogaster), have reappeared in some restored sacred forests.

Local people have welcomed the restoration of the sacred forests because it has increased the forests’ biological, cultural and spiritual values. Local people are also benefiting from income-generating ventures introduced through the project, including agroforestry; beekeeping; the raising of goats, pigs, poultry and rabbits; fish farming; and the trading of non-timber forest products. Parts of the buffer zones of the sacred forests have been planted with teak (Tectona grandis), acacia (Acacia auriculiformis) and other exotic species to help satisfy local needs for timber and wood energy.

As their livelihoods improve, local people have less need to encroach upon the sacred forests.

“The regulatory frameworks put in place and the simplified forest management plans developed have made it possible to reaffirm our leadership and knowledge in the management of our natural resources and in consequence support the development of our community,” says Antoine Houenon, Village Chief of Houènonko and President of the Ayossizoun Local Sacred Forest Management Committee.

“In addition, security of land tenure and the tranquillity that now exists in the sacred forests favours the gradual return of certain animal species … Other activities such as the reintroduction of rare animal and plant species increase the wildlife potential of our forest. Today I take this opportunity to express my joy and gratitude to all those who have helped us to regain hope.”

“The legal recognition of sacred forests due to the implementation of this project took into account traditional beliefs, which led to a decline in the influence of imported religions that bring our ancestral practices into disrepute,” says Tchannoukin Sozehoue, Chief of Cultural Affairs of the Houinyehoueve Sacred Forest Local Management Committee.

“The sacred character so much feared and respected at the time of our ancestors is now reborn. We are proud to organize cultural events and festivals in places dedicated to this effect in the forests. All this contributes to the rebirth and the promotion of our cultural identity.”

Restoration of the Cibodas Biosphere Reserve

The Cibodas Biosphere Reserve (CBR) covers about 115 000 hectares in the districts of Bogor, Cianjur and Sukabumi on Java, Indonesia, with the Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park at its core. The CBR is a haven for hundreds of threatened or vulnerable plant and animal species, including 21 of Java’s 25 endemic wildlife species, such as the Javan gibbon (Hylobates moloch) and Javan surili (Presbytis comata).

The CBR was designated a biosphere reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1977; it is a popular tourist destination as well as an important source of water for about 30 million people, including in the nation’s capital city, Jakarta. It is a stronghold of biodiversity on Java, which elsewhere has been widely cleared for agriculture and development.

Due to a lack of management, however, the CBR has become degraded, and the integrated strategic management plan developed under a previous ITTO project has not been acted on for political, institutional and financial reasons. Another ITTO project, Accelerating the restoration of Cibodas Biosphere Reserve functions through proper management of landscapes involving local stakeholders, now under implementation, is changing this. The project is putting parts of the integrated strategic management plan into effect with the aim of reducing threats to biodiversity in the core area, promoting best land-use practices in the CBR buffer and transition zones, and improving institutional arrangements for the management of the CBR.

The project is being implemented using a participatory approach involving the Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park Authority, three district governments, non-governmental organizations, universities and Indonesia’s National Academy of Sciences.

These two ITTO projects—in Benin’s sacred forests and Indonesia’s CBR—are just part of ITTO’s work, including in collaboration with the Convention on Biological Diversity, to assist its member countries to sustainably manage their tropical forest resources for the benefit of biodiversity, people and the planet.

The ITTO/IUCN Guidelines for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity in Tropical Timber Production Forests and other ITTO policy documents for the sustainable management of tropical forests are available here.