René Zamora Cristales: The significant role of forest restoration in Latin America

December 21, 2020

by Forestry and Climate Change Fund

René Zamora Cristales: The significant role of forest restoration in Latin America

This article originally appeared in the Forestry and Climate Change Fund's semi-annual report.

We have interviewed René Zamora Cristales, Forest Economist and Senior Associate for the Global Restoration Initiative of the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global non-profit research organisation. René works directly for Initiative 20x20, a country-led effort, focused on restoring and protecting 50 million hectares of degraded land in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2030.

It is often said that there are three pillars to sustainability: Social, Economic and Environmental and all three pillars need to be met for a system to be sustainable. How do forests contribute to these three pillars of sustainability and what further actions are needed to maximise their contribution?

It all comes back to the photosynthesis equation. Forests convert water, carbon dioxide, and energy from the sun into biomass and oxygen. Local communities can then sustainably use timber or non-timber forest products on the market or produce food to eat. One example from my home country of Guatemala is the breadnut (or Maya nut) tree, which provides a nutritious fruit that local people can eat or sell across value chains. These economic links that tie forests to markets create jobs throughout the year in nurseries, processing facilities, and other industries. They also provide key habitats for endemic plants and animals that maintain and enhance the biodiversity throughout Latin America’s ecosystems. And last but not least, they absorb carbon dioxide that is causing global warming.

Could you tell us about Initiative 20x20, and why it is necessary for reaching climate change targets in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Initiative 20x20 is a country-led effort to restore degraded landscapes in Latin America and the Caribbean. WRI serves as the secretariat for the Initiative and coordinates the platform that now consists of more than 70 technical partners, 17 countries, and more than 15 private impact investors. At the COP25 in Madrid in 2019, ministers from across the region reaffirmed their commitment to restoring degraded land by increasing the restoration target from 20 million hectares in 2020 to 50 million hectares by 2030.

A large proportion of the greenhouse gas emissions in the region come from changes in land use - from forestry to agriculture (which is very significant in the region's economy). Turning damaged and polluted land back into productive and healthy land is a key nature-based solution to climate change for the region. By storing carbon in trees and in the soil, emissions are mitigated. By stopping erosion, regulating rainfall patterns, and creating new sources of income for struggling farmers, it can help Latin American countries can adapt as the climate changes. The Initiative is also helping governments, like Chile’s, to include their restoration targets into their commitments (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement.

Initiative 20x20 is reliant on three types of actors to turn restoration into a reality: impact investors, governments, and technical organisations. How do these organisations work together to promote restoration and what advantages does this type of partnership bring?

All three actors have an important role to play. Governments can build the right policies to incentivise farmers to invest in restoration. Technical partners can co-create research and technologies with governments and the private sector to bring down the costs of restoration. And impact investors can fund projects that turn pledges into a reality. By working together with Initiative 20x20’s Task Forces, they are creating a thriving rural economy that works for everyone – and that brings additional value for each hectare restored.

How can restoration initiatives be normalised in Central America, so they become an integral part of landscape management practices (in agriculture, livestock, forestry and by small and large owners, communities, businesses and governments)?

Restoration needs to be closely integrated into how people manage land across Latin America. To make that possible, we need to:

  • Develop multi-stakeholder roundtables for each sector to understand their perspectives and needs, along with the challenges that they are facing. Each economic sector can contribute in different ways to a well-managed landscape that benefits people. For example, sugar cane producers in Guatemala are restoring riparian forests on their land to provide a habitat for biodiversity and mitigate floods.
  • Develop public-private partnerships to leverage funds for restoration. Many countries have incentive programs that investors can tap into to accelerate their actions in the field and increase their impact.
  • Build a monitoring system to track changes across the landscape and to show where local goals are being met and where current work is falling short. That starts with understanding the baseline state of the land (and the desires of the people who live there). WRI and Initiative 20x20 have helped El Salvador, for example, to build a simple progress index for one key landscape that reflects the priorities of the Government and local people. Two recent publications, the Road to Restoration guidebook and the Sustainability Index for Landscape Restoration, can help landscape leaders build strong and inclusive monitoring systems.
  • Enhance the investment ecosystem: Economies in Central America are highly dependent on jobs in the informal economy. Investing in innovative entrepreneurs whose businesses restore land can create permanent, formal jobs. Those entrepreneurs need access to training, mentorship, and finance to scale up and help more people. Training programs like the Land Accelerator, marketplaces like TerraMatch (that connect tree-growers with funders), and mechanisms that bundle and derisk finance like the Rural Prosperity Bond and Restoration Seed Capital Facility are all needed.