Turning forest and landscape restoration into business

March 2, 2018

Fog in a forest on Mt. Frickberg near Frick, Switzerland. Image © Stefan Wernli / Wikimedia Commons.

By Douglas McGuire, Coordinator of the Forest and Landscape Restoration Mechanism (FLRM), FAO

Ravaged landscapes, parched riverbeds and destitute communities. These are maybe not the first images that come to mind when you think about forests. But every year forests are being degraded and lost by an area about the size of Belgium. In fact, the total amount of degraded forest and other potentially productive land in the world today is an area roughly the size of South America.

Forests already deliver countless benefits to 1.6 billion people – 25% of our planet’s population – and a multitude of benefits to the rest of us in terms of energy and water supply, and in the fight against climate change.

In recognizing the need to safeguard the benefits that forests bring, the global development community has set ambitious restoration goals, since reinforced by Sustainable Development Goal 15 (life on land), among others. But how much investment is needed to restore the planet’s degraded forests and other productive lands to meet these targets?

Take the Bonn Challenge – to restore 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested lands around the world would require US$ 36 billion annually. Seems a lot at first glance? Not so much when we look at other budgets, such as military spending. The combined budget of several OECD countries was a staggering US$ 900 billion in 2016. Now imagine the benefits that just 5% of that military spending would reap for forests and vulnerable forest communities.

Additionally, according to recent estimates, meeting the Bonn Challenge would generate US$ 84 billion per year in net benefits and bring direct additional income opportunities for rural people. Beyond the potential financial returns, restoration would lead to reduced migration and reduced conflict by improving livelihood opportunities and living conditions, thereby keeping people on the land.

Forest worker in Zululand, South Africa. Image © Samora Chapman for SQF Forests.

Often support for development isn’t viewed from an economic or business perspective. But fortunately there are smart funders out there – impact investors. They understand there is an intelligent way of doing business that will bring a variety of returns to all parties. This means considering the three Ps – profit, people and planet – in their business models, also known as the ‘triple bottom line’. In addition to making money, these investments strive to improve the livelihoods and standard of living of local communities while ensuring that the environment is not harmed, or even improved.

FAO’s Forest and Landscape Restoration Mechanism recently organized the inaugural Forest and Landscape Investment Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, in the context of both the Bonn Challenge and the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, which aims to restore 100 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscape in Africa by 2030. The forum focused on boosting investments needed to achieve these ambitious restoration goals across the region, and reinforce partnerships for increased engagement in forest and landscape restoration.

Virgin forest at approx 2500m above sea level in Shennongjia Forestry District, Hubei, China. Image sourced / Wikimedia Commons.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, Dec 2017.

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