The only way to keep tropical forests standing is to make it economically advantageous. Or, in other words, make a standing forest more valuable than a chopped-down one.
Because make no mistake, in our current economies, with our current incentives, it’s far more economical to raze land, sell the timber, and either plant soy or palm oil monoculture or graze beef livestock.
Everything we do at Wedgetail — every dollar we lend, every grant we offer, every policy we write — is driven by a mission to keep forests standing.
I’ve written a whole article about why tropical forests matter and the services they provide us. It’s essentially an educational, leafy love letter. But the crux of it is that without tropical forests, the planet will be uninhabitable. So, if we want to secure a future for all species, we need to first and foremost keep these forests standing, and then invest in projects which reverse deforestation.
But we need swift and decisive action. Less than 50% of the world’s tropical forests remain standing, and tropical forest loss accelerated in 2022, despite a global pledge to halt deforestation. Since 2017, we’ve been losing one football-field-sized patch of forest every second.
How to keep tropical forests standing
There are several proven strategies for making a standing forest more profitable than a cleared one — from agroforestry and land stewardship payments, to eco-tourism and carbon credits, to the creation of national parks. But before we deep-dive into agroforestry in particular, it’s worth noting that the best solutions are community-driven.
About 50 million people depend on tropical forests for their livelihoods, food and housing, and they need to be the ones spearheading solutions. They have, after all, been protecting forests for millenia, are the first line of defence against climate change and the first to feel its effects. When it comes to keeping forests standing, projects must be community-driven.
At Wedgetail, we’re particularly excited about agroforestry — which is, in the simplest sense, the integration of native trees and shrubs with commercial crops. Research shows that products such as cacao, coffee, honey, jackfruit and vanilla can not only be productively grown inside or next to tropical forests, but then sold in premium markets. It’s agriculture and conservation, working side by side.
But agroforestry isn’t enough on its own. Even with access to markets willing to pay a premium for bird-friendly cacao or shade-grown vanilla, for example, the margins on keeping a forest standing versus deforestation often aren’t wide enough.
In order to make conservation a no-brainer, we also need to pay farmers for their forest management work. For example, by paying a farmer a stipend for keeping their section of forest standing, in addition to what they earn per kilogram of cocoa beans.
If you’re questioning whether this is feasible or necessary, as I once did, consider this reframe…
Developed nations have gained wealth over the past few centuries by exploiting natural resources, both locally and abroad on the lands they've colonised — and the entire world is now facing the consequences. This ‘double-dipping’ approach to resource extraction has enabled these nations to develop rapidly, but at the expense of the progress in colonised regions. It’s time for this wealth to be redistributed.
When it comes to turning the tide on the twin biodiversity and climate crises, our collective redemption lies in keeping remaining forests standing. But we can’t expect the stewards of tropical forests to do this at the expense of their own development and lifting their citizens out of poverty.
It’s hypocritical to expect millions of farmers to transition to agroforestry and secure humanity’s future in exchange for public goodwill.
Goodwill doesn’t put food on the table. Goodwill doesn’t send children to school. Goodwill doesn’t help people climate-proof their farms and futures.
We need to commercialise forest stewardship — because keeping trees standing ensures carbon storage, air purification and cooling for all, keeping soil healthy secures water filtration and carbon storage, and protecting native animal habitat ensures overall ecosystem health and resilience.
Financing the transition to agroforestry
We know why we need to keep forests standing (our survival) and we have a proven solution (agroforestry), so what’s stopping a widespread rollout?
Quite simply, most farmers can’t afford the transition.
But the need and the want is there, and with need comes opportunity. In fact, when you consider that we need to transition to business models which can keep 1.84 billion hectares of tropical forest standing, it’s apparent just how mammoth this opportunity is.
What’s more, if we are to meet our global climate change, biodiversity and land degradation targets, we need to close a US$4.1 trillion financing gap in nature by 2050.
Wedgetail was born from both of these opportunities.
We loan capital and gift grants to businesses of all shapes and sizes that are keeping forests standing around the world — from farming farming communities in the Dominican Republic who are attaining Bird Friendly Certification for their farms, to UOPROCAE’s efforts to measure, map and strengthen their 1,204 hectares of regenerative cacao farmland while upskilling the next generation in best-practice agroforestry.
We do this because, by investing in businesses that are investing in forests, we’re also investing in human health, happiness and prosperity.
And because the choice between a future for all, and no future for anyone, isn’t a choice at all.