Getting the incentives right on forest protection

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Farmer harvesting crops Farmer harvesting crops

The global community has been talking about the need to protect the world’s forests for decades now. Dozens of movements, campaigns, and international declarations over the years have tried to underscore the critical role forests play in biodiversity conservation, water protection, climate change mitigation and local livelihoods. Despite the talk, it’s clear that forests around the world are still under significant threat.

Why is this the case? With all the science revealing the globally significant value of forests as carbon sinks; with all the outcry and warnings from international climate change conferences—from studies on the role of indigenous territories and protected areas in the Amazon to the Greenbelt Movement in Africa—why has humankind not achieved sustainable forest management across the planet?

Part of the answer lies in how incentives for forest protection have been set up and distributed. Although there is increasing awareness that deforestation and forest degradation, together with agriculture and other types of land use, are responsible for around a quarter (23%) of global greenhouse gas emissions, many forest-dependent communities simply don’t have viable livelihood alternatives to clearing trees. So, fully understanding the drivers and incentives that underlie deforestation is key. 

It is also critical for organizations and governments trying to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (efforts known as REDD+) to consult with and understand how to incentivize stakeholders to change behaviors in ways that lead to more positive outcomes for both communities and the environment.


Benefit sharing needs to begin at the grassroots 

Forest conservation must be profitable for forest-dependent communities.  This is an important lesson drawn from the experience of REDD+ and broader sustainable land-use mechanisms. The global community has also learned that these mechanisms need to engage local stakeholders in developing benefit sharing arrangements that address drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, and articulate clear monetary and non-monetary benefits that local communities can directly access.

But when discussions about benefit sharing focus exclusively on revenue distribution from carbon payments, they ignore some of the most meaningful benefits a REDD+ program can deliver—things like improved forest governance structures, clarified land tenure arrangements, enhanced biodiversity, or other ecosystem services. A number of global forest and climate initiatives, including the UN-REDD Programme, have supported the informed and meaningful involvement of all stakeholders, including Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dependent communities, in national and international REDD+ implementation. 

These investments in early benefits yield real, permanent improvements in well-being and grassroots buy-in, while pay-for-performance schemes are developed. What’s more, when communities have a voice in determining how benefits from forest protection are shared, their commitment and support is dramatically improved.

Hands holding seeds
Through improved incomes and increased food security, farmers have become more empowered stewards of their land and advocates for conservation. Photo: Sarah Fretwell/World Bank

Sustainable agriculture and forest conservation pay off for Zambian farmers

In Zambia, the Community Markets for Conservation initiative (COMACO) engages directly with about 180,000 farmers in Zambia’s Eastern Province. These farmers are among the poorest and least food secure people in the region, with unsustainable agricultural practices often leading to nutrient-drained soils and low yields.

COMACO trains small-scale farmers in sustainable agriculture and purchases their key crop produce at premium prices to sell across Africa, under the brand It’s Wild. COMACO-certified farmers are assured of long-term trading benefits with the company and typically move from household food deficits to food surpluses within two to three years. About 86 percent of farmers working with COMACO are now food secure and their income levels have improved, and in some instances more than tripled. 

COMACO has also teamed up with the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund to show farmers how they can generate wealth from reducing deforestation and sequestering carbon in their farming soils. In addition to the social and environmental advantages of reducing deforestation, local populations also benefit from payments for verified emission reductions. Through a carbon offset scheme, communities have been rewarded for their forest conservation work with payment for avoided CO2 emissions.

The program’s first monitoring period paid out $490,000 to the participating nine chiefdoms from the payment for 228,000 tonnes of CO2 emission reductions from REDD+ and sustainable agriculture. Communities have since invested the carbon revenue in their own development projects, such as establishing new wells in regions with limited access to clean water and launching additional income sources like community poultry farming and beekeeping.

With these clear and direct incentives in place, farmers have planted close to 30 million trees annually that are sequestering carbon and providing renewable wood for their cooking. The reforested landscape also ensures the area is more resilient to climate change.

The BioCarbon Fund’s current Integrated Forest Landscape Project in Zambia is building on COMACO’s success and seeking to replicate it at scale. The project is proof that the right incentives in the right hands can turn sustainable forest management into a reality.


A version of this piece was originally posted by the UN REDD Programme.


Roy Parizat

Fund Manager, BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes, World Bank

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