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Fruits of the Forest: How Carbon Finance is Delivering Far-reaching Benefits to the World's Forests

Hugh Bowring | 20 March 2017 |

If tropical rainforests are the lungs of the world, then deforestation must be their cancer. For decades we have heard about the rate of their destruction and only the sheer vastness of these places has sustained such prolonged abuse for so long. Few would question the value of our forests, and yet the pressures to unsustainably exploit them are hard to overstate, and are fuelled by traditional forms of agriculture at a local level and the unrelenting requirements of the global food economy.

Fruits of the Forest: How Carbon Finance is Delivering Far-reaching Benefits to the World's Forests

We have already lost more than half of the world’s forests in the pursuit of firewood and farmland, and today deforestation accounts for around 10 per cent of carbon emissions worldwide. Clearly, things have to change.

An important milestone was achieved when forests were enshrined in international climate action during the Paris Agreement in 2015 and the world’s governments provided the political backing to tackle deforestation and forest degradation.

While on paper this is a significant move, until action on the ground catches up with political desire, the reality is that for many rural communities in the tropics a tree’s value remains, for now at least, greater when it’s been felled than when it’s still standing. Much work is still required to deliver the paradigm shift that will pave the way towards our zero-deforestation commitments.

The opportunities are out there

It’s too early to tell what exactly the Paris talks will mean for forestry, but while the details are still being thrashed out, business can continue to invest in forest schemes safe in the knowledge that any carbon emissions reductions achieved will count towards their targets.

What’s more, there are plenty of tried and tested solutions, which are not only having a direct impact on mitigating climate change, but delivering a host of other social, environmental and financial benefits that are inextricably linked to protecting forests.

In recognition of the International Day of Forests, we’re taking the opportunity to sing from the canopies about some of the great work that’s already being done around the world, and whet the appetites of businesses looking to branch out into forest-based carbon finance.

Madagascar’s beacon of hope

Madagascar is a global biodiversity hotspot, with more than 80% of its animal and plant species not found anywhere else on Earth. But the country is facing an all too familiar story, where expanding rural subsistence communities are chopping down trees for fuel and farmland, and over-hunting the remaining woodlands. In 2003, the country’s then president made an impassioned bid to protect his nation’s treasured assets by committing to tripling the number of protected areas; but without the finance to support the pledge or the manpower to govern it, little has changed and in many parts deforestation has spiralled out of control.

Situated on the island’s northernmost point, the Makira Natural Park, which is managed on behalf of the government by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), provides a demonstration of the potential for Madagascar. Since 2005, the 372,000-hectare park and 350,000 hectares of its surrounding area have seen a 50% reduction in deforestation through the promotion of grass roots community action to reverse destructive behaviour and establish patrols, ecological monitoring and protected zone demarcation. Hunting of the threatened lemur has fallen in favour of farmed sources of protein, like poultry and fish, and support to farmers to increase rice yields on existing fields means that there is less need for them to clear forests to plant rice, which is the staple food. Such methods have resulted in a tripling of rice production for farmers. In addition, a major youth engagement programme is using art and technology to communicate environmental messages and help raise awareness of the importance of conservation.

In December 2013, the project’s first carbon credits were sold through Natural Capital Partners, and today carbon finance provides around a quarter of all running costs. Half of the money raised through carbon finance is directed to community development projects that demonstrate a link with decreased deforestation or the preservation of natural resources, such as rebuilding a classroom, strengthening a link road between villages or setting up a health clinic.

Alison Clausen, Director, Madagascar & Western Indian Ocean, WCS, believes the project is a demonstration of how carbon finance can have far-reaching benefits, not just for mitigating climate change, but protecting natural resources and improving lives.

“This is going to sound like a sales pitch, but what’s going on here is about so much more than just carbon,” she says. “This project is about community development, opening access to education and better health, and protecting biodiversity – it’s a combination of benefits.

“It’s taken a lot of time and effort to get to this point, but we’re very pleased with how the project is going and feel optimistic about the future.”

Find out more about the Madagascar Makira REDD+ project.

Fighting back in Brazil

With 90% of its land still covered by forest, Acre is one of Brazil’s most unaffected states. Home to giant armadillos, tapirs, rare birds and many other unusual and exotic species, it is also one of the country’s most biodiverse regions. All that is under threat, however, as current deforestation rates threaten to reduce the forested land to 65% as soon as 2030.

Thankfully there are glimmers of hope, as small pockets of resistance attempt to buck the trend and save the region from suffering the fate of many of its South American neighbours.

The Acre Amazonian Rainforest Conservation Project provides one such cause for optimism. Under the 105,000-hectare scheme, set up in 2011, riverine communities are offered a host of benefits in return for agreeing to stop cutting down trees to make way for cattle pasture and farming. Chief among these is the chance to gain land tenure – which is no easy feat in the depths of the jungle – as well as receiving agricultural training to help them stop deforestation and promote sustainable economic livelihoods.

According to Brian McFarland, Director of Project Origination at CarbonCo, which established the REDD+ project, securing land ownership is not just paramount to the scheme’s success, but in the wider fight against deforestation.

“Once people are recognised as landowners a sea of opportunities opens up for them, including all-important routes to finance for tractors, boats, fertiliser and so forth, which helps them make the shift from subsistence living to sustainable business practices,” he says.

“Clarification of land ownership stands to have one of the greatest high level impacts on the conservation of the Amazon.”

All community members are offered the chance to join the scheme, with those that do also gaining access to health centres and dental clinics.

Brian says none of this would have been possible without the support of carbon finance.

“The project members understand that the only way to continue receiving the benefits is by continuing to reduce deforestation to generate carbon credits that can be sold to pay for them,” he says.

“And it’s working. Deforestation rates are going down year on year and we are seeing real benefits on the ground and in people’s lives.”

Find out more about the Acre Amazonian Rainforest Conservation project.

Empowering communities for change in Malawi

Malawi is among the world's least-developed countries, with a largely rural population that is heavily reliant on subsistence-based agriculture and natural resource exploitation. Its once thriving forests have given way to barren and degraded landscapes as people have cut down trees for fuel and farming land. In modern day Malawi some women have to walk up to four hours each way just to find firewood, and inefficient farming techniques are returning low yields from the soil-eroded fields.

The Kulera Landscape REDD+ Program for Co-Managed Protected Areas was set up in 2009 to create sustainable forest-based livelihoods for the 225,000 people living around three of the Southern African country’s wildlife reserves and national parks. By using carbon finance to put an economic value on standing trees, the project has been turning illegal logging and traditional slash and burn agriculture on its head and successfully conserving around 217,270 hectares of miombo woodland with important biodiversity value.

In recognition of its impact, the project has received Triple Gold from the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard because of its role in climate change adaptation and delivery of exceptional climate, community and biodiversity benefits.

Through the scheme, forests are protected directly under a co-management structure with the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPW) using community-run patrols and protected area demarcation. The supply of renewable energy sources for local communities and the installation of energy efficient cookstoves, as well as providing alternative sources of community income, are indirect contributors to the conservation. Local farmers are supported to grow more sustainable crops and produce better yields, and to make better use of the standing forests for income diversification, such as through beekeeping and growing mushrooms.

The programme was established by Total LandCare with USAID funding, but is now entirely supported through carbon finance and other sources of income. It is fully managed by the local communities and DPW with support from Terra Global.

Erica Meta Smith, Project Manager with Terra Global, says establishing a long-term working partnership with the local community association and DPW, along with their high level of commitment, has been at the heart of the programme’s success.

“This has never been about forcing an idea on local partners, but instead has been about working with them from the outset to design and implement a programme to address the constraints and challenges that they face in building their socially, environmentally and financially sustainable landscapes,” she says.

"The programme focuses on working with communities to understand the value of standing forests and how global carbon markets can generate income to support forest protection, and to make investments in adoption of sustainable land-use practices.”

Find out more about the Kulera Landscape REDD+ and Cookstoves project.

Get involved

Carbon finance is helping to reduce deforestation and transform lives, and has a clear role to play in meeting future forest-based targets for tackling climate change. Businesses can already choose from a host of schemes to best fit their values and goals.

Stephen Killeen, CEO of Natural Capital Partners points out: “Lots of companies are talking about deforestation but very few are making much progress. Supporting projects like this which are taking a ground-up approach to deliver real long term impact on peoples’ lives will help reach those goals. We’re privileged to partner with these inspiring projects and very proud of the work our clients are doing to support them.”