Award recognizes CIFOR’s Terry Sunderland for landmark research defining forest-food nexus

Brazil – A top international scientist who has advanced the application of the landscapes approach to conservation and development research while introducing a new discipline of study at the intersection of the forest-food nexus has won a 2019 Scientific Achievement Award from the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO).

Terry Sunderland, a senior associate scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and a leader in tropical forest research, received the award last week at the IUFRO World Congress in Curitiba, Brazil.

He has made significant contributions to research across a broad spectrum of disciplines, including tropical forest botany, conservation planning and practice in the tropics. Through his work he has also made substantial efforts to improve the landscapes and livelihoods of tropical forest communities.

Sunderland is also an early adopter of new technologies, using various platforms to communicate his research to a wide range of media.

His career launched inauspiciously in the British seaside city of Brighton where he grew up. His first job at age 16 was working as a horticultural trainee in Brighton’s Parks and Recreation Department, where he began to develop a lifelong intimacy with plants.

“It feels a long way from the type of work I am doing now,” Sunderland reflected.  “But I learned a great deal there and it formed my love of plants, and especially trees.”

His love affair with forests, particularly in the tropics, has resulted in both adventure and misadventure. He has been chased by angry elephants, put in hospital for three months after surviving a tree fall on an isolated forest camp, nearly lost his hand through a serious spider bite and has had numerous bouts of malaria. These certainly rank among his most  challenging experiences. Despite this, Sunderland said his encounters with the “dynamic world” of tropical forest environments and communities have been his reward.

A tropical journey

“It was just something else,” he says, reflecting on his introduction to the tropical forests of Panama, where he continued his training for after his stint in Brighton’s parks. Since then, during undergraduate studies at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a master’s degree at Britain’s University of Oxford and doctoral research in West and Central Africa, the tropics became both his journey and his destination, Sunderland said.

Springing from his initial interest in conservation, observations of the interactions between people and the environment intrigued him and became the focus of his work, first in central Africa, where he spent 15 years and then in Asia, where he served for 12 years as Principal Scientist and subsequently as team leader for the Sustainable Landscapes and Food Security portfolio at CIFOR in Indonesia.

The work he developed at CIFOR became key to understanding an often-overlooked paradigm between forests and food security, ultimately putting it on the global agenda: forests are crucial for food production and for better diets in more ways than formerly recognized.

Forests for food

By 2050, the United Nations projects that an estimated 9.7 billion people will populate the planet, indicating that global agricultural production must grow significantly to meet demand. Concerns over how to manage forests sustainably amid increasing food demand remain of paramount concern, Sunderland said.

Leading a high-level panel of experts that in 2017 published the Sustainable Forestry and Food Security and Nutrition report, commissioned by the Committee on World Food Security, Sunderland and his research collaborators demonstrated that rather than being in competition with one another, food production and forests are more critical to the other’s existence than previously thought.

The report, as the body of work he developed around forests and food demonstrates, aimed to break down the barriers between the agricultural, forestry, nutrition and conservation communities and increase cross-sector collaboration.

Team player

“CIFOR gave me intellectual freedom, and therefore the opportunity to explore new ways of envisioning forests,” he said. “This is how the food and forests work came about.”

“It really was a fantastic place to work,” he added. Although he has since moved to Vancouver where he is Professor of tropical forestry in the Faculty of Forestry at Canada’s University of British Columbia (UBC), he continues to contribute to the landscape-scale research at CIFOR.

“I am, of course, honored,” Sunderland said, referring to the IUFRO award. “But all of us work in teams and with partners and the body of work on forests and food security, and the broader landscape work that has been recognized is really a team effort. I am extremely grateful to all those who have worked with me along the way.”

“When you have the chance to work with someone like Terry, you agree an objective with them and then you let them work as they want,” said CIFOR’s director general Robert Nasi. “Then you get the great results we had in terms of reshaping the understanding and awareness of the contribution of forests and trees to our food systems.”

Currently, Sunderland’s work focuses on operationalizing the landscape approach on the ground in a large scale project involving Asia and Africa, following more than 10 years of research.

At UBC, he is training the next generation of foresters to look beyond trees to consider all stakeholders and elements in a landscape. To date, he has supervised or co-supervised more than 40 graduate students, many of whom are now implementing landscape-scale initiatives for themselves.

“I’m just trying to use the experience I’ve gained in the field and in the policy arena to influence and hopefully inspire the next generation of people who are passionate about forests and landscapes,” Sunderland said. “It really is as simple as that.”

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