Op-Ed: 6 Simple Steps for Saving the World's Rain Forests

Forest and climate expert Daniel Nepstad argues that we have to get smarter about meeting rising global food demand and protecting our tropical rain forests.

Rain sweeping in over The Chapada dos Guimarães National Park 62 kms outside Cuiaba in the Mato Grosso region of central Brazil. (Photo: Getty Images). 

Apr 8, 2013
is Executive Director & Senior Scientist at IPAM International Program.

In 1984, at the tail end of the Brazilian dictatorship, I took up residence in a frontier town called Paragominas in the eastern Amazon. I went to study rainforests and pasture restoration, but soon became captivated as well by the drama of the frontier itself.  Forests were hotly contested among cattle ranchers, smallholder communities, land speculators and more than a hundred logging companies, sometimes with fatal results. If we are to meet rising global demand for food, conserve tropical forests, and mitigate climate change at the pace that is necessary, we must become much better at taming aggressive, lawless tropical forest frontiers where people are making a lot of money cutting forests down.

The last nine years of experience in trying to slow deforestation and support sustainable agriculture have demonstrated that single-mechanism strategies are, alone, insufficient.  Instead, powerful synergies can be unleashed by linking together approaches that focus on policy innovation, market transformation, and direct support to farm sectors. Ultimately, success will be achieved when one tropical frontier after another makes the transition to a new type of rural development that is maintaining (or restoring) forests, increasing agricultural productivity, and raising the rural poor out of poverty. If there are widely perceived benefits from forest-friendly rural development—including greater market access, greater flows of finance, higher profits, higher tax revenues (to governments), improvements in rural livelihoods, and declines in rural violence—then political leaders, farmers, financial organizations, agribusinesses, commodity buyers, and retailers may gradually come to support the transition.

We’re not quite there, yet.  But the last nine years have been rich in lessons for how to move the forests and food agenda forward in a way that also helps to mitigate climate change. Paragominas is now a leader in sustainable rural development.  Mato Grosso—Brazil’s agricultural giant located in the southeastern Amazon —has reduced deforestation more than any other state (90%) while continuing to expand beef and soy production. In Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Viet Nam, Nigeria, and many other nations, the potential for similar transitions is growing. Here is quick, incomplete synopsis of some key lessons:

Lesson 1. Learn what farmers need to make the transition.

Many farm sectors today have begun to make the transition to sustainability with few or no positive economic incentives and little technical assistance. Instead, many farmers in forest frontiers are vilified. They could become powerful proponents of a low-deforestation development model, but only if their needs and aspirations are understood and met.

Lesson 2. Develop effective mechanisms for financing farmers’ transition

The biggest source of finance for the transition to low-deforestation development is often domestic banks, both public and private. Many of these institutions know they should be supporting the transition to sustainable farming, but are not sure how to go about it. Innovative finance mechanisms could favor farmers who are achieving simple metrics of sustainability, such as those developed by commodity roundtables.

Lesson 3. Build effective systems for supporting farmers technically

Good seeds, fertilizer, livestock breeding, land management techniques, water management, pest control, and commercialization strategies are all necessary components of farmers’ transition to low-deforestation production. Many of these ingredients of success are often missing.

Lesson 4. Agree on a single, simple definition of success in lowering deforestation across districts, counties, municípios, states, provinces and nations.

In Mato Grosso today, there are ten different processes underway to address deforestation, each with its own metric and language, and none of them providing positive incentives for foregoing deforestation.  It is very difficult to address deforestation one farm, one mill, or one commodity at a time, especially in the absence of a clear definition of success.  We need progress across entire jurisdictions, facilitating alignment with policies and law enforcement. We can start by defining progress against historical rates of deforestation (as jurisdictional REDD does).

Lesson 5. Commodity roundtables (RSPO, RTRS, Bonsucro), Consumer Goods Forum companies, and other firms must commit to buy preferentially from counties/states/nations that are lowing their deforestation and from farmers who are making the transition to sustainability.

Roundtables could add on jurisdiction-level reductions in deforestation to their principles and criteria; the CGF could also adopt incremental, jurisdiction-wide pathways to “zero net deforestation”.

Lesson 6. REDD programs must move beyond their current association with isolated projects to become an integral part of the rural development transition, fostering flows of benefits that reward jurisdictions that are slowing deforestation.

Few states or nations have begun to exercise the power of REDD as a policy framework for supporting the transition to low-deforestation, high-production rural development.

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was published as part of a series leading up to the 2013 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, to be live-streamed April 10-12 from Oxford, U.K.

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