Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Three Innovations That Might Save the Amazon

Reading Time: 6 minutesThe World Wildlife Fund’s senior director for the Amazon on smart new strategies for protecting the rainforest.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Photo: Nicolas Villaume

Reading Time: 6 minutes

This article is adapted from the Fall 2015 print edition of Americas Quarterly. To subscribe, please click here

With each passing day, we lose more of our world’s forests to deforestation and degradation.

But the good news is that in recent years, we’ve become considerably more sophisticated in how we try to protect the Amazon and other vulnerable areas.

While there are thousands of projects in the works worldwide, here we outline three of the best, most innovative strategies that give us hope — and have produced tangible results. Taken together, these strategies can contribute to an Amazon with not only healthy ecosystems, but also the conditions for falling poverty, sustainable develpment and equitable growth.

1. Creative financing tools for “protected areas”

Specially designated “protected areas” are one of the most effective tools we have for conservation in the Amazon. Governments have made tremendous strides over the last 10 years in setting them up. But the reality is that most countries in the Amazon — and worldwide — can’t afford to staff and maintain the systems.

That leaves them vulnerable to illegal logging, mining, unsustainable agriculture, or poaching that degrades or destroys the resources these areas have been established to protect. “Paper parks” — legally decreed conservation areas but with little or no enforcement on the ground — are an unfortunate reality throughout the Amazon.

We believe that an innovative approach called Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) can provide a solution to this problem. From 2000 to 2010, Brazil tripled the area under protection in the Amazon, an expansion that some estimate was responsible for about 40 percent of the decrease in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon during that period. But coming up with the funds needed to maintain these protected areas — an estimated $50 million annually — was a challenge. So we stole a page from Wall Street’s playbook by applying a project finance approach to Brazil’s Amazon protected areas system.

Project finance — an attractive loan structure for the private sector — is the financing of complex projects such as electric power plants, infrastructure and public service projects that rely on a project’s projected cash flow for repayment. With the leadership of the Brazilian Ministry of Environment and a dedicated team of project partners, we developed and agreed on a set of ambitious conservation outcomes and pledged to contribute based on a detailed financial plan — but only when all of the parties involved agreed that all of the conditions necessary for closing the deal had been met.

Private-sector donors, including individuals, foundations and corporations, as well as public-sector donors, such as the Global Environment Facility and the government of Germany, came together to support the plan. The result: We successfully capitalized a $215 million fund in Brazil that, together with steadily increasing investment by the government of Brazil, will cover the cost of protecting 60 million hectares (148 million acres) of land (an area one and a half times the size of California) over the next 25 years.

The PFP approach used in Brazil can help other countries in the Amazon, and we are actively engaged in applying the same project finance approach to the national protected areas system in Peru.

2. Pressure for “deforestation-free” products

Large-scale expansion of commercial farms, driven by increasing global demand for commodities such as soy and beef, is a major cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Fortunately, there has also been growing demand in recent years for sustainably sourced goods. Consumers increasingly recognize the need for purchasers, wholesalers and retailers to provide “deforestation-free” products — those produced with little to no harm to the forests.

The demand for sustainably sourced goods and increasing pressure from environmental organizations has had a significant impact on the industry. For example, a 2006 report by Greenpeace highlighting the role of illegal deforestation in Brazil for the production of soy was a wake-up call for companies importing soy from Brazil.

This, together with other pressure and threats of a boycott by consumers, led to the establishment of Brazil’s Soy Moratorium later that year. Threatened by a loss of their export markets, Brazil’s largest soy exporters agreed not to buy soy from newly deforested areas in the Amazon, and a working group of exporters, traders, and environmental and social organizations in Brazil was established to monitor its implementation.

Prior to the Soy Moratorium, approximately 30 percent of soy production came from deforested land. Today this number is less than 2 percent. Further, it is clear that there does not need to be a tradeoff between protecting land and commodity production: There was still a substantial increase in the production of soy during the same period of reduced deforestation aft er the Soy Moratorium went into effect.

Over the same time period, the Brazilian government also stepped up enforcement of illegal deforestation and banned credit to farmers in municipalities with high rates of deforestation. These actions, together with the establishment of new protected areas, are largely responsible for the 80 percent reduction in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon over the last 10 years. And that reduction in deforestation means billions of tons of CO2 emissions avoided.

The power of the private sector to be part of the solution to deforestation in agriculture is real, as demonstrated by Brazil’s Soy Moratorium. The stage is set for similar sector-wide agreements for other commodities.

In 2010, the Consumer Goods Forum, a trade association representing hundreds of the largest producers and retailers in the world, committed to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 through responsible sourcing of four commodities that play the largest role in driving deforestation in tropical forests — soy, palm oil, paper and pulp, and beef. Many additional companies signed on to a similar pledge in the New York Declaration on Forests in September 2014. Now is the time to deliver on those ambitious commitments.

3. Tackling illegal logging through technology

While agriculture is the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, forest degradation in the region is caused primarily by illegal logging. A degraded forest is one that is no longer capable of providing many or all of the goods and services that an intact forest provides, such as water retention or wildlife habitat. In some parts of the Amazon, as much as 80 percent of all timber harvested is illegally obtained.

Illegal logging is too often the first step in a series of events that can end in total deforestation. Loggers build roads into previously inaccessible areas of primary forest and harvest commercially valuable tree species. In this process, loggers also leave plenty of trees behind that do not hold the same worth. The forest that remains no longer contains much valuable timber, and this newly accessible area makes it susceptible to conversion for another use, like agriculture or cattle ranching.

Given these often dire consequences, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is implementing a suite of strategies to tackle illegal forestry and trade in several Amazon countries. In Bolivia, WWF supported the government’s development of a new national certification system for responsible forest management.

This system, launched in late 2014, uses smartphone technology to trace timber from the forest to the factory. Plastic tags with laserprinted QR (Quick Response) codes that can be scanned by the smartphone using a custom app are affixed to harvested logs. The tags, which cost only 50 cents each, store data on tree species, timber volume and geographic origin, allowing for timber traceability with a minimum margin of error, as well as reducing the time needed to generate the reports and maps needed to monitor forest concessions.

The tagging system has proven to be an inexpensive and innovative way to ensure compliance with the national certification scheme. WWF is helping Bolivia’s government make this technology more widely available free of charge to registered users.

In Peru, December 2014 saw the signing of the National Pact for Legal Wood by five Peruvian government agencies, indigenous peoples’ federations, the private sector, and nonprofits, including WWF. Under this agreement, the parties agreed to promote trade in legal timber and to eliminate illegal logging in the country by 2021. WWF is supporting the pact’s implementation, including the use of similar technology to improve timber traceability and prevent illegally harvested wood from being passed off as legal.

We are at a critical moment for the Amazon. But businesses, governments and civil society cannot prevail alone. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, global leaders must be ready to act and agree to a global climate accord that links ambition to international support and finance to get the job done.

With forest loss and land use change accounting for around 20 percent of global carbon emissions, our international leaders will have to recognize that conservation and sustainable management of forests, including the Amazon, must be a part of the solution. Applying innovative strategies, such as described above, has the potential to decrease deforestation and significantly decrease carbon emissions — a win-win solution for people and the planet.

Symington is senior director for the Amazon on the World Wildlife Fund-U.S. Forest Team. She began her career in conservation studying tropical ecology and primate behavior in the Amazon.

Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter