- Issue: Fall 2020
- Author: Kerry Cesareo
As I stand in my backyard in Takoma Park, Maryland, staring up at the fractal pattern of green oak canopy against blue sky, I’m grateful for my community’s strict tree ordinance and my tree-loving neighbors who insisted upon it. These days, I’m spending more time than ever out here. It’s the new normal in the era of COVID-19.
In this moment, I recall a similar image from a world away: the foliage of a Congo rain forest in black silhouette against an indigo night sky and, below, the shadows of an elephant mom and her two babies across a clearing. I think of my two children and hope fervently that they will get to see forest elephants someday, and I’m grateful for the actions of WWF and many others who helped to bring that forest and its elephants back from the brink.
During my time in the Congo Basin, I also learned about safe “social distancing” long before any talk of the novel coronavirus. To keep from transmitting diseases to the resident gorillas, I had to don a face mask, disinfect my hands and shoes, and keep far away. Sadly, this is now part of our daily routine here at home. And the pandemic requiring these actions may be a result of our continued disturbance and degradation of the forests so essential to our existence.
We’ve made some progress in saving the world’s forests—and supporting the people and animals that depend on them—but most remain under threat. If we keep destroying forests at current rates, we will lose 420 million more acres by 2030 and as many as 573 million acres by 2050. That’s an area about five times larger than all of California.
Forest loss is a problem that affects us all. The more forests we lose, the harder it becomes to fight climate change. And the more the climate changes, the more vulnerable forests are to destructive forces, such as more frequent and intense fires. The fires that raged from the Amazon to Australia to the Arctic in 2019 were a stark reminder of the threat and a preview of what’s to come. The more forests burn, the more carbon is released, the more the climate changes.
As dire as this negative cycle is, forests are actually major allies in the face of the climate crisis. In fact, there is no viable solution to the climate crisis that doesn’t involve forests. So we have to get creative. Fortunately, we’re harnessing more innovation in conservation than ever before.
What’s old is new again
There’s lots of talk today about nascent carbon capture technologies that could pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But while those elaborate technologies are still in early stages, there’s a mature carbon capture technology already in widespread use: trees.
Trees are having a moment. Leaders across businesses, governments, and civil society are calling for tree planting and forest restoration on a massive scale through efforts such as the Bonn Challenge, the World Economic Forum’s 1t.org, and the Trillion Trees initiative by WWF and its conservation partners—BirdLife International and Wildlife Conservation Society. Forests and trees are a particularly important piece of the climate puzzle when planted in the context of restoring forest landscapes, which is why we’re working with partners to scale up investment and support for critical restoration projects around the world, such as in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.
But forest restoration is not a substitute for deep emission reductions from the fossil fuel sector nor for halting deforestation. In fact, saving a forest is about 30 times more effective in fighting climate change than restoring one. Fully realizing the multifaceted role of forests in the fight against climate change presents new and powerful opportunities for saving them.
Financial sector tools
Research shows that conservation areas—parks, refuges, reserves, and lands managed by Indigenous communities—remain one of the most effective interventions to prevent deforestation. The global annual cost to manage existing protected areas in developing countries is only about $2.5 billion—a lot of money for the average person but a rounding error in the context of the global economy (less than the box office revenue of Avengers: Endgame). Yet protected areas are chronically underfunded and poorly managed; governments in developing countries spend less than a third of what’s needed each year.
To help cover that gap, WWF and our partners are using a novel approach called Project Finance for Permanence—borrowing a tool from the banking world often used with complex infrastructure projects—to attract private funding. This funding bridge is used to support and improve the management of a country’s protected areas while the national government puts in place policies and measures to ensure ongoing funding and effective management.
Using this approach, in 2014 WWF worked with donors and the Brazilian government to create a $215 million fund to permanently protect 15% of the country’s Amazon rain forest. Despite an onslaught of deforestation and related fires, the areas supported by the fund continue to fare better than other parts of the Brazilian Amazon. We’re now scaling this concept across the region and world, having closed a similar deal to protect the Peruvian Amazon in 2019 and working to protect a large swath of rain forest in Colombia.
Harvesting trees to protect the forest
Wood, paper, and other forest products are renewable, are often biodegradable, and—when they come from responsibly managed forests—can have a lower carbon footprint than other materials such as steel, concrete, and plastic. When forests are managed responsibly, they also continue to absorb carbon dioxide and provide important wildlife habitat. Such products and services can generate income to help ensure trees are kept standing.
WWF has worked with hundreds of companies and communities over two decades to drive improved management through Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) certification. Now, some of the most responsible companies are going beyond just improving their own operations. Information technology giant HP, for instance, sources the bulk of its branded printer paper as FSC-certified. But it recognized that not all of its printer customers use HP-branded paper. Now, the company is working with WWF to invest in restoration in Brazil and increased FSC management in China to cover the total paper “footprint” of its printer customers over the next four years—regardless of which paper brand consumers actually use.
Traditional stewards and high-tech tools
Yet even the world’s most influential and ambitious companies cannot do their part to address the complex challenge of deforestation if local stakeholders are not deeply involved. Indeed, Indigenous peoples and local communities are among the world’s most effective forest stewards.
Deep in Guyana’s rain forest, for example, is the nation’s smallest tribe, the Wai-Wai, who have been stewarding their lands for millennia. Today, they are taking that care to new levels. With smartphones, GPS, cutting-edge software, and a 10-week training course from WWF, the Wai-Wai are cataloguing all the carbon in their forest—measuring every tree, recording the species, and collecting leaf litter samples—in order to ground in truth what satellites are measuring from hundreds of miles overhead.
Why measure the carbon stored in those forests? Under international agreements, Guyana has received funding to maintain its low deforestation rate. The data collected by the communities supports those deforestation claims and makes each participating community eligible to receive a portion of the funds, rewarding stewardship and providing economic support to communities that often have few options.
In addition to measuring carbon, the Wai-Wai have used the tools to complement their traditional knowledge when making decisions about their collective use of resources—from hunting to harvests—and to keep track of food supplies, community health, and personal well-being.
Forging uncommon alliances
In addition to regulating and stabilizing our climate, forests are sources of fresh air and clean water, of food, fiber, and fuel. Forests are also the greatest library we have of natural compounds for medicines both known and undiscovered, and they shield us from diseases—when their ecosystems are in balance.
There is increasing evidence that damaging forests and other natural habitats can adversely affect our health. Between 1940 and 2005, land-use changes like deforestation contributed to almost half of the outbreaks of zoonotic diseases in humans around the world; deforestation and forest fragmentation are primary drivers of Ebola transmission.
Last year, WWF began working with health sector partners to better understand how forest conservation efforts can best support human health. We’re exploring how our two sectors can achieve more by working together, not only to mitigate future disease outbreaks but also to shed light on and advance the multitude of ways that forests contribute to better human health.
Seeing the forests for the trees
From the mighty oaks of Maryland to the majestic sapeles of central Africa, trees keep us healthy and our planet livable. And just as they are threatened by climate change and other negative impacts of human behavior, they also hold the key to overcoming many threats before us.
We know what we need to do to protect our forests, and we have the tools to do so. Now that our lives have been forever changed by our disruption of nature, it’s more important than ever to come together and solve the problems we’ve created. Future generations of people, elephants, and other forms of life on Earth depend not only on us but on those patterned canopies that provide such solace during these trying times.
Together possible... all thanks to you
At WWF, we know we can only be successful if we work together. So many of the stories featured in this special forest issue reflect the power of partnerships—whether with individuals, communities, corporations, government entities, or other nonprofits. Our partners make our work possible around the world, including in Brazil, Bhutan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guyana, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Peru, Republic of Congo, Russia, and the United States.
These stories also reflect the generosity of myriad supporters dedicated to our shared vision for the planet’s future. Thanks to all those listed below—and so many others—we are making change for the better. Together with local communities, we are preserving and protecting our treasured forest landscapes for generations to come.
4 Anonymous Donors
Acacia Conservation Fund
The Bedari Foundation
The Bhutan Foundation
The Bobolink Foundation
Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies
Climate And Land Use Alliance
Tammy & Bill Crown
Dhanin Tawee Chearavanont Foundation
Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development Of Germany (BMZ)
Global Environment Facility
Green Climate Fund
Leona M. And Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust
Inter-American Development Bank
International Paper Company
Pamela And Neville Isdell
Johnson & Johnson
KFW Development Bank
Linden Trust For Conservation
The John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
McDonald’s Corporation Metabolic Studio
Gordon And Betty Moore Foundation
The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation
Diane And Michael Moxness
Norwegian Agency For Development Cooperation (NORAD)
The Pepsico Foundation
Philipp Family Foundation
The Procter & Gamble Company
Redstone Strategy Group
The Tilia Fund
UK Department For International Development (DFID)
United Nations Development Programme
US Agency For International Development
US Department Of State
US Fish And Wildlife Service