When the Global Environment Facility was launched in 1991 to address the world’s most urgent environmental crises, 2 percent of its grants were allocated to forest conservation.
Today, sustainable forest management is one of the largest parts of the GEF’s portfolio and is continuing to grow as more and more countries recognize the critical ecosystem, climate, and health benefits that forests provide in a planet under strain.
“The science is clear. Protecting primary forests is the cheapest and best solution to the twin crises of biodiversity and climate change, and is a major priority globally,” said Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, GEF CEO and Chairperson and a pioneer of large-scale reforestation efforts in Costa Rica.
To date, the GEF has invested $3.7 billion in forest initiatives, from the Amazon to the Congo Basin to Asia and the Pacific.
Forest projects made up 27 percent of funding distributed from 2018 to 2022 – an amount that is set to grow further over the next four years, a period known as GEF-8. The current funding cycle could include as much as $1.5 billion for forests, when every project with an impact on the sector is included.
Forests lie at the intersection of many environmental priorities, from biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation to the good management of river basins and watersheds.
A proposal approved for implementation in the GEF-8 cycle is on track to become one of the multi-donor fund’s most ambitious forest management initiatives to date.
The Amazon, Congo, and Critical Forest Biomes Integrated Program is an integrated effort to safeguard the world’s remaining primary forests: critically important bastions in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss that also supply millions of people who live in and near them with food, income, and medicine.
In addition to the Amazon and Congo, the program will be open to other areas with high ecological integrity including tropical forests in Mesoamerica, West Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. These are forests that provide service that cannot be replaced on a human timescale.
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Growing threats, growing resolve
The resolve to save the world’s forests from destruction has grown over the past several decades – with good reason.
Forests are home to most of the world’s biodiversity, act as critical carbon sinks, combat soil erosion, and remove impurities from the water we drink and the air we breathe. They provide food, medicine, fuel, and shelter. And a growing body of research shows their preservation may also help prevent future pandemics.
And yet these vital biospheres face grave and growing threats: from shifting weather patterns, from wildfires and other climate change-linked disasters, from contamination by mercury and other pollutants, and, above all, from the deliberate clearing of land to make way for crops, livestock, mining, or human settlement.
Since the early 1990s, some 420 million hectares of forest have been lost to deforestation, much of it caused by insatiable global demand for agricultural commodities such as beef, soya beans, and palm oil. While the pace of global deforestation has slowed, 11.1 million hectares of tropical tree cover vanished in 2021, according to a Global Forest Watch report. Of that, 3.75 million hectares were primary forest cover.
To turn this around and ensure a sustainable path for the world’s remaining forests, the GEF and its wide network of partners are working to support the improved care and keeping of critical biomes while also offering incentives to encourage sustainable forest management.
The Critical Forest Biomes Integrated Program aims to safeguard the integrity of entire biomes by supporting a range of measures: stronger cross-border investments and coordination, rational land use planning, improved management and funding of protected areas, clarity in land tenure and other relevant policies, coherent management of both commercial and subsistence agricultural lands to reduce pressure on adjoining forests, and financing mechanisms and incentives to encourage sustainable management of forests.
Equally urgent for forest protection is the transformation of domestic institutions in countries that have previously not invested in this area in a holistic way. This will require breaking down silos and encouraging agencies to work together to set priorities and put in place coherent spending plans.
In so doing, environmental authorities can win buy-in for conservation efforts from those working in and around forests – spanning the agriculture, mining, energy, and transportation sectors, among others.
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An evolving approach
In many ways, the Critical Forest Biomes Integrated Program represents the culmination of an evolution in the GEF’s approach to forest protection that has been guided by on-the-ground experience as well as stakeholder input.
Although GEF-supported activities center on the goals of the international environmental conventions that it serves – including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Convention on Biological Diversity – the growing sustainable forest management portfolio also reflects changing national and international needs and priorities along with evidence-based shifts in forest management practice.
This evolution has seen the GEF’s initial project-by-project take on forest conservation develop into an integrated strategy that increasingly reaches across geographical borders and involves multiple focal areas and partner agencies, as well as the Indigenous and local communities who live near and in forests and earn their livelihoods from forest products.
Where in the past protected areas had formed the core of the forest portfolio, conservation efforts are increasingly taking what is known as a landscape approach to address multiple sources of pressure on critical ecosystems.
“Protected areas are created to protect a certain form of nature or of biodiversity, but we know that the drivers of forest destruction are often not in these spots. All the threats related to agriculture, urban development, transport, roads, energy: they are outside,” said Jean-Marc Sinnassamy, who manages the GEF’s sustainable forest management portfolio for Africa and the Indo-Malay Pacific region.
He stressed that decisions affecting primary forests are often taken very far away from the biomes, underlying the need to work with the private sector, banks, and other global players for meaningful results. In addition, sustainable forest management initiatives require a good understanding of local and national contexts, and strong engagement with Indigenous Peoples, in order to take hold.
“The countries that host these forests also need development, need jobs, need food security, need livelihoods, need money,” Sinnassamy said. “The point is to find an alternative for these people. And this alternative could be a mix of legal actions, soft agreements, and financing – different options.”
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In recent years, as the GEF started to support pilot integrated approaches related to forests, countries have shown increased openness to and ownership of the landscape approach, including the use buffer zones and corridors around protected areas to lessen the impact of activities beyond the borders of national parks and nature reserves.
“The empowerment of local communities, including Indigenous Peoples, as well multi-stakeholder approaches are becoming the norm.” Sinnassamy said. “In the upcoming Critical Forest Biomes Integrated Program, countries will have an opportunity to reap the benefits of the landscape approach through long-term financing for conservation, capacity building, payments for ecosystem services, and reforms to better-align policies and domestic resources. This is a truly pivotal moment for the scaling up of investment in forests.”