Aligning forces for tropical forests as a climate change solution

  • Tropical forest governments need help to achieve their commitments to slow deforestation and are not getting it fast enough; companies could deliver some of that help through strategic partnerships, especially if environmental advocacy strategies evolve to favor these partnerships. Aspiring governments also need a mechanism for registering and disseminating their commitments and for finding potential partners.
  • Climate finance is reaching most jurisdictions, but not at the speed or scale that is needed. Tropical forest governments need help making their jurisdictions easier to do business in and more bankable; they are beginning to develop innovative ways to use verified emissions reductions, to create industries and institutions for low-carbon development, and to establish efficient, transparent mechanisms for companies to deliver finance for technical assistance to farmers.
  • Partnerships between indigenous peoples and subnational governments have emerged as a promising new approach for both improving representation of forest communities in subnational governance and delivering greater support, unlocking climate finance in the process.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

As governors of tropical forest states and provinces descend upon San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit and the annual meeting of the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force, I’m writing to share some opportunities to improve the effectiveness of strategies for solving tropical deforestation.

Tropical forests could be critical to avoiding extremely dangerous impacts of climate change. New strategies and commitments have inspired hope and driven important progress and innovations to slow tropical deforestation and speed its recovery following clearing, fire or logging. But forests—broadly defined—are still falling fast.

To unlock this potential, the work that tropical forest governments has been doing must be understood, and some of their critical needs must be met. In this article, I describe three main challenges and associated opportunities.

A forthcoming study of 39 tropical forest jurisdictions that contain 28% of the world’s tropical forests found that half are succeeding in slowing deforestation. All are striving to tackle tropical deforestation. GCF Task Force (35 jurisdictions) are in green; other jurisdictions are in purple.

Challenge 1: Corporate deforestation pledges abound but few companies are partnering with tropical forest governments that have made pledges to slow deforestation

The last decade has seen hundreds of commitments by companies, governments, and non-governmental organizations to do their part to slow deforestation.  The most conspicuous pledges have been those by large corporations that have committed to remove deforestation from their supplies of commodities whose production can drive deforestation. Of the 473 companies committed to removing deforestation from their supply chains of major agricultural commodities, 155 have made specific commitments to achieve that goal by 2020 and 49 (10%) companies have reported 75% or greater progress toward achieving their goals (see Table below).

Less conspicuous are the pledges by 35 tropical forest governments to slow deforestation 80% by 2020, if they line up sufficient finance and market partnerships. These pledges are particularly important because they come from the governments who have their hands on most of the levers that can be pulled or adjusted to slow deforestation across nearly one third of the world’s remaining tropical forests. The conditionality of these pledges, however, is crucial: many governments in tropical forest regions simply do not have sufficient capacity—human resources, institutional capacity, in some cases legal authority—to tackle deforestation alone. They need help.

Pledges and progress made by jurisdictions and companies committed to slow tropical deforestation and projections to 2030. The emissions projections are for a 90% reduction and a zero net deforestation projection by 2030. Sources: State of Jurisdictional Sustainability: Preview of a Global Assessment and State of Jurisdictional Sustainability: Synthesis for Practitioners and Policymakers (forthcoming September 10, 2018). Data on company commitments from Supply Change (, Forest Trends)

Historical deforestation in selected sub-national jurisdictions, according to an upcoming study from Earth Innovation Institute, CIFOR, and the GCF Secretariat.
Historical deforestation in selected sub-national jurisdictions, according to an upcoming study from Earth Innovation Institute, CIFOR, and the GCF Secretariat.


Tropical Deforestation Pledges and Progress
  Tropical Forest Jurisdictions Companies
Number of Pledges Rio Branco Declaration (35)

New York Declaration on Forests (20)

Under2MOU (75)

Individual commitments (473)

Consumer Goods Forum (~400)

NYDF (55)


2020 Commitments Rio Branco Declaration:

-80% reduction in deforestation by 2020 if corporate partnerships and finance sufficient

155 (33%) of 473 companies made commitments to zero deforestation supply chains by 2020
Deforestation metric Regional declines in deforestation (% reduction below historical average or reference level) Zero deforestation in supply chains
Progress Towards 2020 Commitments Deforestation declined in 20 of 39 jurisdictions

Deforestation declined >50% in 7 of 39 jurisdictions

49 companies (12%) with>75% compliance with 2020 pledgesa
Progress on carbon emissions 6 GtCO2 (avoided emissions) unknown


The apparent convergence between marketplace and producer region ambitions has led to surprisingly few partnerships. Only four governments that signed the Rio Branco Declaration in 2014 have established formal contracted partnerships with companies that buy commodities from their jurisdictions. Far more companies have established “soft” partnerships with tropical forest governments through regional coalitions. The companies that have chosen to partner with governments—Unilever, Mars, Carrefour, Marks&Spencer, to name a few—are essential early movers in what could become an important new dimension of tropical forest solutions.

There are many factors that contribute to the small number of corporate-government partnerships, including corporate concern that a shift to jurisdictional sourcing of the commodities that they buy from tropical forest regions will expose them to attacks from advocacy NGOs. Most jurisdictions include some “black-listed” producers or processors, presenting risks to jurisdictional sourcing.

Lowland rainforest in Southeast Asia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Lowland rainforest in Southeast Asia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Opportunity 1: Create a global enabling environment for corporate-governmental partnerships to prosper, proliferate and help solve tropical deforestation

Important networks of tropical forest governments have been created to support “bottom up”, government-led strategies to slow deforestation and achieve low-emission development, including, most prominently, the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force (the GCF), the “Sustainable Districts Platform” in Indonesia (Lingkar Temu Kabupaten Lestari–LTKL), the “Green Counties” program (Programa Municípios Verdes) of Pará State, Brazil, the “Sustainable Counties” program (Programa Municípios Sustentáveis) of Mato Grosso, Brazil, and others. These networks provide opportunities for learning, innovation exchange, and collective action, supporting the largely invisible work of dedicated career civil servants in tropical forest regions.

Beyond the essential work of these governmental networks, a global “green jurisdiction” registry is needed that allows aspiring tropical forest jurisdictions anywhere in the world—beginning with current network members—to register their formal commitment to slow tropical deforestation and/or speed forest recovery, to disseminate the types of partnerships they are seeking to implement these commitments, and to provide core information about their policies, commodities, and programs. Such a registry is under development at the Earth Innovation Institute, building on the online jurisdictional information system. Some tropical forest jurisdictions, such as the State of Acre in the Brazilian Amazon, have developed individualized performance platforms with a focus on opportunities for business partnerships in low-carbon industries, the, which could become an important new trend.

Draft guidance for establishing effective corporate-government tropical forest partnerships to this end has been provided the Steering Committee of the “Balikpapan Challenge” group on agricultural production and tropical deforestation, based upon surveys of GCF government representatives. A global system for supporting green jurisdictions should include all jurisdictions that have embarked upon the journey, not just front runners; it should lead to mutually beneficial partnerships, and it should be consistent with, and supportive of, the producer region’s public policies and programs.

For corporate-government partnerships to flourish and proliferate, it will be crucial for advocacy NGOs that currently target corporate performance in implementing zero deforestation commitments to find ways to recognize and support promising new partnerships between companies and aspiring jurisdictions.

Industrial deforestation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Industrial deforestation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Challenge 2: Climate finance is flowing, but slowly and with many restrictions

Tropical forest jurisdictions that are achieving large-scale reductions in tropical deforestation and associated carbon emissions, and others that aspire to do so, have had a difficult time translating these successes into compensation, new low-carbon business ventures, or other benefits for their regions. Regulated market mechanisms for financing jurisdiction-wide declines in emissions from tropical deforestation have not yet been finalized, missing an opportunity to recognize and reward tropical forest governments that are successfully combating tropical deforestation. California is ready to launch its tropical forest offsets program, and on September 6th announced its draft “California Standard for Tropical Forests”, just one step short of launching the first regulated market for tropical forest emissions reductions. California has established a high bar of rigor and transparency for both verifying emissions reductions and guaranteeing that the rights and livelihoods of indigenous people other forest communities are respected. This new California development could encourage other new carbon markets, such as those under development in China, the International Civil Aviation Organization and elsewhere, to follow suit.

As the world waits for a robust carbon pricing mechanism, climate finance for tropical forests has been a lifeline to many jurisdictions, lending credibility and political cover to bold political decisions to solve tropical deforestation; it has also provided critical financing for activities on the ground. Climate finance is still quite limited in scale ($2.3 billion have been disbursed or committed to the 39 jurisdictions) and flows slowly, usually through complex national government channels.

Maliau Falls in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Maliau Falls in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Opportunity 2: Make tropical forest jurisdictions more bankable and business-friendly while putting verified emissions reductions to work

Most of the world’s tropical forest regions are challenging places to do business and risky places to make investments, and the 39 jurisdictions we studied are no exception. It is difficult and expensive to establish the rule of law across vast, unruly tropical forest frontiers. Rules and regulations are often complex and bureaucratic in their implementation, infrastructure is precarious, and economic elites often control and guard access to forests and their wealth, sometimes with force.

There is tremendous scope, therefore, to improve the ease of doing business and lower risks to potential financial investors. The State of Acre, for example, has supported innovative new low-carbon protein industries, local processing of non-timber forest products (e.g. condoms fabricated from native rubber), and has supported the state’s producer owned cooperative, COOPERACRE, as analyzed in our forthcoming study of Acre’s low-carbon industries and institutions (go here for Acre’s jurisdictional sustainability profile).

The State of Mato Grosso has accumulated more than 700 million tons of CO2eq in verified emissions reductions, recognized by the national REDD strategy, that could be used to offer carbon-neutral commodities to its major soy markets or to create a forest fund, energizing its Produce, Conserve, Include Strategy.

In Caquetá, Colombia, the Ministry of Agriculture has launched its first sustainable production finance credit line through FINAGRO.

In Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, an “agricultural facility” has been created that can receive funding from partner companies and deliver it to smallholder farmers through technical assistance, part of an RSPO experiment in “jurisdictional certification”.

Community leader from a village near Jantho, Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Community leader from a village near Jantho, Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Challenge 3: Indigenous peoples and other forest communities are still struggling to achieve formal recognition of their rights and support for their livelihoods

Considerable progress has been made in the last ten years in some countries to formally recognizing the territorial rights of indigenous peoples and other forest communities. There is still a long ways to go, however. One of the challenges is to provide the necessary support to these communities for continuing and improving their forest-maintaining livelihoods. Indigenous peoples are often the “responsibility” of national government agencies, with varying levels of effectiveness in defending the interests of forest-based communities. 

Opportunity 3: Subnational government partnerships with indigenous peoples and local communities 

Subnational governments are often strategically positioned to partner with the indigenous peoples and other forest-based communities in their jurisdictions. In response to this opportunity, the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force established the “GCF Working Group on Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities”, which will release its “Guiding Principles for Collaboration and Partnership between Sub-national Governments, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities” on September 11th. This Working Group is already fostering a rich exchange of lessons and innovations in how to make these partnerships successful. One of the early movers in this realm is the Government of Acre State, Brazil, that has been developing its government partnership with indigenous peoples across several administrations, as documented in the new study to be launched September 11th.

Dan Nepstad is the Executive Director of Earth Innovation Institute.


  1. [1] Griscom, B.W., Adams, J., Ellis, P.W., Houghton, R. A., Lomax, G., Miteva, D.A., Schlesinger, W.H., Shoch, D., Siikamäki, J.V., Smith, P. and Woodbury, P., 2017. Natural climate solutions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(44), pp.11645-11650.
  2. [2] In 2017, tree cover loss in the tropics totaled 15.8 million hectares. The technique used to make this estimate includes the loss of secondary forests, tree plantation harvests, and tree losses from forest fire.  The area of forest loss in 2017 was second only to 2016, the worst year on record (Global Forest Watch. 2018. World Resources Institute. Accessed on Sept. 5, 2018. Also see:
  3. [4] Some companies have reported that potential attacks from NGOs are an important barrier to engaging in jurisdictional sourcing partnerships with tropical forest governments, since most governmental jurisdictions include black-listed producers or processors.
  4. [5] Forthcoming World Bank study by Silvia Irawan and John Watts, INOBU & EII.

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