A man and woman at the venue of the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany. Photo by: GLF

BONN, Germany — This year’s Global Landscapes Forum aimed to launch a revitalized “movement,” bringing together a range of actors under one banner to drive progress toward the climate change and sustainable development agendas.

But as the dust settles on the conference, attendees have expressed mixed views about the new platform.

More than 1,000 actors drawn from a disparate range of sectors including agriculture, forestry, and ecology, as well as faith and indigenous leaders, gathered in Bonn, Germany, for the two-day GLF, which has been given a new lease on life thanks to an 11 million euro grant from the German government.

GLF was originally launched in 2013 by the World Bank, the Center for International Forestry Research, and the United Nations Environment to integrate the historically disparate forestry and agriculture communities under a broader “landscapes approach” agenda.

While definitions vary, landscape approaches broadly recognize that land has multiple, and competing uses, and that multisectoral approaches are needed in order to balance the needs and challenges of poverty alleviation, livelihoods, biodiversity conservation, land rights, and food production.

The revitalized event offers an important opportunity to increase investment, improve integration efforts, and drive progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, experts said.

However, some pointed to a lack of clarity surrounding the aims and mission of the new GLF, and “landscapes” as a concept in itself, and said the forum was too academic and research-focused in its current format. The timing of the event so close to Christmas, and less than a month after the United Nations climate change conference was hosted in the same city, also raised eyebrows.

Devex was on the ground in Bonn this week and rounds up some of the key takeaways from the event.

1. Restoration is flavor of the forum

Restoration — the practice of regaining the ecological integrity of land that has been deforested or degraded, most often by planting trees — was the hot topic at the GLF, with a number of side events and sessions dedicated to the concept. While not a new idea, restoration has gained traction in recent years through the launch of the Bonn Challenge in 2011 in which more than 40 countries pledged to restore 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded lands by 2020.

Early on the first day, the World Resources Institute launched a new report that positioned restoration of degraded land as having the potential to save more than $6.3 trillion a year and deliver between $7 and $30 in returns for every $1 invested by creating jobs, improving agricultural yields, and helping to combat climate change. The session included a number of big names, including the Global Environment Facility’s Naoko Ishii and former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, chaired by WRI’s head, Andrew Steer.

The report outlines seven barriers preventing greater restoration finance, alongside some solutions, such as aggregating projects to reduce risk, and removing subsidies that benefit unsustainable agricultural practices, as Calderón discussed further in an interview with Devex.

However, some experts raised concerns that support for the restoration agenda is taking much-needed finance and attention away from efforts to curb deforestation and could translate into effectively giving governments, companies, and communities a free pass to continue clearing forest lands on the basis they will be restored later.

“This GLF seems to be all about reforestation and restoration, and deforestation has fallen to the wayside,” according to Leo Bottrill, who is the founder of MapHubs, which enables forest land-use to be easily tracked, as well as the director of Moabi, an NGO working with communities to map deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This is diverting funding from deforestation and conservation efforts that are already “under-resourced,” he said with most climate finance going into renewables and the energy sector.

2. Land tenure and indigenous rights are key

Andy White, coordinator at the Rights and Resources Initiative, a Washington D.C.-based coalition working on land tenure reforms for forest peoples, agreed there were questions about the restoration agenda and said it would only be successful if indigenous peoples’ land rights were secured and protected.

“Landscape restoration happens at scale when people’s rights to their land and trees are secure,” he said citing evidence from China, Nepal, and South Korea, adding that “if rights are clarified and secured, people will invest in the land or allow it to be naturally restored.”

“We need a seat at the table … If we’re not at the table, we’re probably on the menu.”

— Roberto Borrero of the International Indian Treaty Council

Studies show that securing indigenous and community forest rights yields substantial benefits over a 20-year period and are cheaper than establishing new protected areas. Community-held forests have been shown to generate ecosystem benefits worth up to $1.2 trillion in Brazil, for example, and also avoid the annual release of significant amounts of carbon. Research by WRI and RRI also shows that deforestation is two to three times lower within tenure-secure indigenous lands in much of the Amazon.

White said the restoration agenda was originally seen as a complement to REDD — reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation — schemes. But the restoration agenda has gained prominence in recent years as REDD schemes have often failed to deliver — partly because they have not prioritized land tenure issues. “So now, many people are looking for alternative solutions,” he said.

The GLF represents a “tremendous opportunity “ to learn from REDD’s early mistakes and “get this right,” he said.  

However, while there has been plenty of “reassuring rhetoric” about indigenous groups and tenure issues during the forum, “we’ve yet to see whether it will translate into action and investment on the ground,” White said. Investments could include helping communities to map their land and develop management plans.

Roberto Borrero, from the International Indian Treaty Council and a member of the Taino people, spoke during the plenary about the need for indigenous groups to be given a meaningful role in decisions about how landscapes are used.

“We need a seat at the table … If we’re not at the table, we’re probably on the menu,” he said, adding that “we need to raise our visibility in these processes but also move beyond the beautiful statements that are made and ... see the implementation on the ground.”

He also warned against categorizing indigenous peoples as “marginal” or “vulnerable,” and instead seeing them as equal partners. “We are partners [who] have solutions,” he said, adding “we’re not looking for saviors; we can save ourselves if we have the right tools and are given the opportunity … [which] comes with respect of our rights.”

“If you want the big money you need to go to the private sector.” 

— Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment

3.  Private sector

How to make the financial case for restoration, alongside other landscapes funding, and make it appealing to investors, was another major topic at this year’s GLF.

“If you want the big money you need to go to the private sector,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, speaking to Devex. But many companies are currently reluctant to invest due to financial and political concerns. He said it is the job of public money to “take some of the risk” and also “give political protection to companies, many who are reluctant to invest in difficult environments because they feel they are blamed if there is corruption, even if they are not corrupt.”

“So you need to simply sit down with the companies to discuss what are their needs, how can we fund these so they can spend big money in the right way,” he said.

UN Environment has been doing that through its work in Indonesia through the Tropical Landscapes Financing Facility, a $1 billion fund that it helped set up with French bank BNP Paribas to get long-term financing into commercial green projects, including responsible agribusiness and agroforestry. Satya Tripathi, executive secretary of the TLFF, told Devex the first deal is due to be announced in January. 

Solheim said the TLFF came out of discussions around how to design a “mechanism so we can bring some big money for the small-scale farmers” in Indonesia, who have lower productivity compared with larger farms. “If their productivity can be drastically increased there is much less incentive to destroy the forest,” Solheim explained.

The partnership model appears to be taking off. At the One Planet climate summit held in Paris earlier this month, the U.N. agency and BNP Paribas announced plans to scale up the approach and open Sustainable Finance Facilities in other countries with the aim of providing $10 billion in capital funding by 2025. In October, the agency also announced a $1 billion facility with Dutch bank Rabobank to work in Latin America.

Solheim said he is optimistic the landscapes sector can undergo the kind of transformation seen in the renewable energy sector in recent years, where the “price of solar and wind can compete with coal,” but this will depend on finding the right “kinds of mechanisms.”

4. The wrong crowd?

However, despite Solheim’s public endorsements, no one from BNP Paribas was at GLF, and while Rabobank sent a delegate, the private sector was poorly represented at the conference. This was noticed by a number of attendees, with some speculating the GLF format was too academic and research-focused to attract companies and investors.

Furthermore, none of the companies who pledged to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 in their supply chains were in attendance. Some delegates felt this was worrying, especially given a recent report by Climate Focus revealed that progress against commitments has been patchy and slow, and that at least 10 million hectares of tropical forest continues to be lost and degraded every year, half of which is due to commercial agriculture.

The absence could be due to the timing of the event, some suggested. In earlier years when the GLF was attached to the Conference of Parties, big names such as Unilever CEO Paul Polman attended. This year, the organizers decided to break away and hold their event a month after the most recent COP negotiations.  

While Bottrill said it was noticeable that major companies such as Mars, Nestle, and Unilever had chosen not to send delegates, he was more concerned about the major global agri-businesses who supply these multinational companies with commodities such as cocoa.

“The real power is held by the supplier companies but they receive much less attention than the upstream companies [such as Mars],” he said.

5. Identity crisis

These absences are linked to what some described as a general lack of coherence within the GLF as it held its first event under a revamped leadership. There also appeared to be some confusion over the landscapes concept itself, which one delegate described as “a term in search of an idea.”

Some delegates Devex spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous for professional reasons, said the GLF event was too academic and research-focused and that they hoped future events would attract more practitioners and those with experience implementing landscape projects on the ground.

“I think they [the GLF] will add more value if they really demonstrate an interest in supporting innovation and have discussions about operations and the reality of trying to change things on the ground,” said one.

Bottrill added it is important for GLF to create space for “meaningful debate” between the traditionally siloed groups involved in the landscapes sector, between whom there are often “misunderstandings.” For example, it is “too easy to characterize companies as doing wrong when really it’s much more nuanced,” he said.

Read more Devex coverage on land matters.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.