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Meet the Experts: Q&A with Frances Seymour

Frances Seymour rejoined WRI in May as a Distinguished Senior Fellow. Recognized as an international authority on forest and governance issues, she has served as Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development. She is the lead author of Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change. Seymour returns to WRI to advise the Institute’s many forest initiatives. Recently, she shared her thoughts on progress—and pitfalls—in the fight to save forests.

Insights: The global statistics on forests are quite dismal. Evidence shows we’re losing 50 soccer fields’ worth of forest every single minute of every day. Are there signs of hope?

Frances Seymour: It’s true that the rate of forest loss is alarming, and it’s tempting to despair that we can overcome the forces that drive deforestation-as-usual. But I take heart from the many individuals, organizations and networks that are chipping away at those forces. To name a few:

Every year, the winners of Goldman Prize include individuals who have successfully challenged governments or companies threatening to destroy precious forests. This year, a park ranger from the DRC was recognized for managing to fend off efforts to drill for oil in Virunga National Park.

Political leaders in forest-rich countries continue to express their willingness to collaborate on forest conservation. In September, I’ll be attending the annual meeting of the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF). The GCF brings together governors from jurisdictions in nine countries to promote innovative climate and land-use policies, such as the strategy for forest-compatible development being pioneered by the state of Acre in Brazil.

And deep in the bowels of large international bureaucracies, there are individuals harnessing the resources of their organizations to nudge policies and investments in the right direction. I serve on the advisory board of the Program for Forests (PROFOR), which is a trust fund based at the World Bank. I’ve been encouraged to learn how PROFOR resources have enabled individual World Bank staff and their colleagues in client countries to make progress on mainstreaming forests into economic decision-making.

Individually, these efforts are not sufficient to turn the tide on deforestation. But there’s hope that with international support, they can collectively push us toward a different future for forests.

What are the biggest challenges facing forest conservationists right now?

FS: In local communities, the biggest challenge is to avoid being killed for advocating forest conservation. Forest defenders face the risk of being murdered for getting in the way of the loggers, miners and agribusiness interests who would destroy the forest for private gain. Global Witness just released a report documenting 200 such killings in 2016.

At national and global levels, the biggest challenge is a profound lack of appreciation by high-level policy-makers on the importance of forests to both climate and development objectives. We can’t reach the goals of the Paris Agreement without the carbon capture and storage services provided by forests, and yet forests don’t enjoy nearly the political attention or finance their mitigation potential deserves. Similarly, standing forests make significant contributions to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals―including those related to poverty, hunger, health, water and energy―yet those contributions continue to be virtually invisible in economic decision-making.

How has the forest governance landscape shifted since you last served as the head of WRI’s Governance program in 2006?

FS: I’d highlight three interrelated developments. One significant shift has been the linkage of forests to climate change. For decades, international cooperation on protecting tropical forests was stymied by a divide between developed and developing countries. But the framework for joint action on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) negotiated under the climate convention between 2007 and 2013 provided a vehicle for North-South consensus on the way forward.

Another remarkable development has been the rapid advances in remote sensing technology to monitor forests. The information that’s now available to anyone on the Global Forest Watch website was unimaginable ten years ago, in terms of both the scale of resolution and the frequency of updates. It enables the carbon accounting that underpins the payment-for-performance element of REDD+, as well as a rapid response to illegal forest clearing.

Finally, new norms of forest governance have emerged over the last decade, particularly with respect to indigenous rights and corporate behavior. Since the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted in 2007, relentless advocacy by indigenous groups has won them wide recognition for their indispensable role in forest conservation. And the 2010 Consumer Goods Forum pledge jump-started a wave of corporate commitments to get deforestation out of supply chains for beef, oil palm, soybeans and pulp and paper. Advances in forest monitoring technology have helped accelerate adoption of these new norms, showing that forest conversion for commodity production is a key driver of deforestation and demonstrating the overlap between the presence of indigenous peoples and remaining forests.

Your work has supported paying developing nations to protect forests. What are the prospects for success in doing so?

FS: I’ll answer that question in two ways. On the one hand, I’m optimistic about prospects for the success of REDD+ if significant funds were on the table. My former colleagues at the Center for Global Development have elaborated on why performance-based finance is more likely to achieve results than traditional, input-based modes of development assistance. Reducing deforestation is a particularly ripe target for this approach. Forest conservation outcomes are now relatively straightforward to monitor, and achieving those outcomes in complex and sensitive situations requires the know-how and political will that only leaders of forest-rich countries―not donors―can provide. Those are the kinds of situations that are best-suited for results-based finance.

On the other hand, I’m less optimistic about getting those significant funds on the table in the near term. Most donor agencies have been reluctant to program funds on a payment-for-performance basis, and prospective markets for forest carbon credits―such as California’s cap-and-trade system―are still nascent. As a result, REDD+ remains a great idea that’s hardly been tried.

I’m hopeful that as soon as the world gets serious about addressing climate change, forests will finally get their due attention and finance in the national and international policy arenas that are influencing the fate the of the world’s forests.

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