Hope For The Forests at COP22

COP22 has revealed signs of real momentum toward an effective role for tropical forests in achieving a low carbon future, writes Tony Juniper. Now for the hard bit - connecting with realities on the ground to make it happen. This will mean working with indigenous and other forest communities to support and reward their conservation efforts, while harnessing large-scale international carbon finance.
With government negotiators from across the world working hard to deliver the goals of the Paris Agreement, the COP22 meeting in Marrakesh has revealed a welcome sense of momentum on the vital role of forests.
Two broad themes have been under discussion: one is the suite of actions needed to slow down and halt the loss of natural forests. The other is how best to achieve officially agreed targets to restore hundreds of millions of hectares of already lost.
One well-founded estimate suggests that if these two agendas were successfully pursued then about one third of what the world needs to do during the coming couple of decades to reduce emissions in line with a two-degree warming limit can be achieved.
There is a growing realization moreover that this huge carbon contribution can be secured at the same time as a range of similarly vital co-benefits, including for improved rural livelihoods, protecting human cultural diversity, water security and wildlife conservation.
Striking in the conversation at COP22 has been the number of moving parts now involved. Whereas a decade ago there was a strong mainstream emphasis on projects, particular companies, individual concessions or national parks, today the debate is far more wide ranging and COP22 has heard of several new and dynamic fronts that have opened.

Landscape-level carbon management
Prominent in this respect was the emphasis on conservation at the scale of landscapes - based for example on entire river catchments. They involve a multiplicity of interests, land uses and social contexts, taking the frame of action beyond for example the protection of areas of remaining natural forests or a focus on single commodities, such as palm oil or cocoa.
The reason for this is because the different interests in landscapes are generally not aligned behind any single vision and pursue their own goals in ways that cause forest degradation and clearance.
Once landscape-scale areas are identified then data can reveal what might be the most rational choices in relation to different goals - for example food production, carbon storage, wildlife protection and watershed integrity.
A number of multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as that embodied in the High Carbon Stock Approach initiated by Greenpeace, are now being deployed to render this task structured and based on good quality information.
Critical to making landscape scale conservation work is the livelihoods of rural people and the extent to which they have influence and control over the resources that sustain them, especially land title. If people can make a living through the sustainable and optimum use of water, soils and forests then they'll be less inclined to degrade those resources.
There are many ways to pursue this goal, including through support for and investment in agroforestry. This style of farming mimics the structure of the natural forests with for example timber trees grown on the same plots as cocoa and coffee, bananas, avocados and vegetables.
This generally enables more to be produced on the same land and can boost incomes, reduce pressure on remaining forests and increase farmer resilience, as growers become less dependent on any single crop. Soils are protected from heavy rain, more carbon is locked up and nutrient cycling can be rendered more efficient.
Agroforestry and other sustainable production methods can in turn produce food and materials that reach markets via the supply chains of private sector companies, including those with global reach and that have adopted zero deforestation policies. They can use their brands to increase the positive economic impact on the ground via the power of end consumers. Coffee and chocolate companies are among the pioneers making these connections, so are paper and soya producers.

Integrated action
These kinds of integrated strategies are now increasingly backed in tropical rainforest countries by national targets adopted at COP21 in Paris last year. For some of the world's biggest emitters, such as Brazil and Indonesia, have greenhouse gas reductions goals that are being cascaded into policies working at state level.
For example in the state of South Sumatra in Indonesia a Green Growth policy aims to reduce forest loss via improving rural livelihoods. That and other state level frameworks are already proving to be important catalysts in getting companies, communities and NGOs on the same page.
During the coming years they could bring major dividends, for example in the prevention of the kind of fires that in 2015 raged across Sumatra and which caused daily emissions equivalent to that of the entire United States.
Other targets adopted internationally are also driving landscape-scale forest restoration. The global ambition in relation to that is set out in a target agreed via the Bonn Challenge initiative. Countries have agreed under that framework restore forests on some 350 million hectares of land by 2030.
As well as creating negative carbon emissions this initiative could be harnessed to reconnect fragmented landscapes, thereby improving the fortunes not only of people but also declining animals, such as tigers and forest elephants.

Finance for equitable outcomes
These different strategic activities in landscapes are being backed by a new wave of finance, some of which is coming via funds allocated for implementing the United Nation's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) initiative. While some campaigners and analysts have been wary of the effect of carbon finance on forest people, fearing their interests might be sidelined as governments seek access to lucrative international financial flows, delegates at COP22 heard how there is a considerable opportunity to harness that cash for equitable outcomes.
It was for example pointed out in several side events how the cheapest way of getting the biggest carbon benefit from forests is through the recognition of the land rights of forest peoples. For evidence of this take a quick look at satellite images of the so-called 'arc of deforestation' that spread across the eastern and southern margins of the Amazon basin rainforests during recent decades.
Despite the large-scale loss of forests large blocks do still remain. Most of those surviving forests are in protected areas or on lands controlled by indigenous people. The view from space conveys an important lesson as to how the empowerment of forest of the forests can deliver big benefits not only for them but also for the rest of the world, in carbon, water and wildlife.

Thinking big
While the complexity on the ground is of course considerable, an observation made by Indonesian conservationist Professor Jatna Supriatna might help us to master the challenges ahead.
He urged delegates at COP22 to beware "the tyranny of the small decision" and suggested that the pursuit of environmental goals could only be succeed through a holistic and proactive view, compared with the piecemeal and reactive approach that has characterized so much of past and present activity.
To that end he spoke about the work of the Belantara Foundation. This new body was established and received initial funding from pulp and paper giant Asia Pulp and Paper as part of its plan to support the restoration of one million hectares of natural rainforest across Sumatra and West Kalimantan in Borneo.
Belantara's mission is to achieve that proactive integration of agendas at the scale of landscapes and to do that through the kinds of multi-stakeholder collaborations that have in the past so often evaded those seeking to stop the destruction of the Earth's most diverse and carbon dense terrestrial ecosystems.
As delegates at COP22 considered the opportunity of integrated landscape scale approaches, a common message came through. It was about the need to generate not only more data but also more trust, so that evidence-based collaboration can actually thrive. That in turn is about transparency and good governance.
If these sometimes hard to pin down concepts can be developed at the level of landscapes then perhaps the fate of the forests might not be so gloomy as sometimes appears to be the case.
This article was first published by The Ecologist, 15th November 2016.