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From the local to the global, landscape and forest restoration pays dividends

A Stanford researcher helped the World Bank integrate landscape and ecosystem approaches into development projects in new ways, influencing nearly $1 billion in development finance and supporting global climate investments.

Aerial view of a forest with fishing boats along the coast
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s forests support clean flowing water that is vital for local fishers. (Image credit: Vincent Tremeau/The World Bank)

For the thousands of people who live in and around the edges of tropical forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Congo Basin, everyday life is intertwined with the forest ecosystem. These communities hunt bushmeat, harvest plants for food and medicine, and cut wood for fuel. 

Beyond the forest fringe, Congo Basin forests help protect urban centers downstream of the forests and along the Congo River from worsening floods, erosion, and water quality issues. This includes the nation’s capital city of Kinshasa, one of the world’s fastest-growing megacities.

The Congo Basin forests provide these and other benefits, or “ecosystem services,” to 30 million people across the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the five additional countries in the Congo Basin: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Republic of Congo. 

The forests cover 143 million hectares (353 million acres) and are the second largest contiguous tropical forests after the Amazon – large enough to regulate the local climate system and create their own rainfall. In fact, they provide the surrounding farmlands and pastures with 50% of their annual precipitation, making them vital for food and water security. They also absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year than the Amazon. 

In a report released in November 2023 with contributions from Stanford scientist Adrian Vogl, World Bank researchers estimated that the total value of forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo for climate mitigation alone is as much as $6.4 trillion.

Yet there are significant pressures on the forests’ ability to provide these services, particularly from unsustainable commercial logging practices and clearcutting for agriculture. Vogl and colleagues’ analysis for the World Bank report, conducted through the World Bank-led Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Landscape Assessment (BELA) initiative, showed the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently a net carbon sink – meaning it absorbs more carbon than it produces. At current deforestation rates, however, the country will become a net emitter within just a few years.

“It was really surprising when I ran through the numbers,” said Vogl, who is the director of research impact and a lead scientist at the Stanford-based Natural Capital Project and a co-leader of the BELA initiative. “I double- and triple-checked them.” 

At current rates, the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere through deforestation in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2021 and 2030 could be equivalent to twice the 2019 emissions of the European Union. However, the BELA analysis showed that in contrast to the status quo or business-as-usual scenario, directing investments toward forest protection and landscape restoration in priority zones could increase the ecosystem services value of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s forests by $3.8 billion annually. In fact, each dollar invested in landscape and forest restoration can yield nearly $3 in benefits relative to the business-as-usual scenario over the next decade, and $15 by 2050.

Global investment in ecosystems

The Democratic Republic of Congo took Vogl’s analysis of different deforestation scenarios and their impact on the economy for the World Bank report, and used it at the December 2023 United Nations climate summit, known as COP28, to help demonstrate the significant value the country provides to the global economy. 

Because the opportunity costs for the country of not developing that land are very high, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s government advocated for greater international funding to retain these global benefits. They were successful in getting a portion of what is needed: A new partnership was announced at the COP, “People, Forests, and Nature: Partnership for the New Climate Economy of the Democratic Republic of Congo,” with $62 million in initial funding commitments provided by several countries and private foundations.

A boat filled with dozens of passengers travels through the water
Over 70% of people in the DRC depend on ecosystem services for their basic needs, including food, transportation, materials, and livelihoods. (Image credit: Vincent Tremeau/The World Bank)

“With its forests, in addition to water and mineral resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo is positioning itself as a solutions country for the climate crisis,” said Ana Elisa Bucher, a senior climate change specialist at the World Bank who had asked Vogl and the BELA team to contribute to the Country Climate and Development Report. “Through the analysis of its ecosystem services and valuation of its forests, we are helping the government plan a new development strategy.”

Operationalizing an ecosystem approach to development

Minimizing deforestation requires not only additional funding, but also greater understanding of how to address its underlying causes through development projects and loan processes. For many years, Vogl and the Natural Capital Project had worked with Urvashi Narain, a lead economist in the World Bank’s Environment, Natural Resources, and Blue Economy division, along with others at the Bank, to apply natural capital approaches to development and climate challenges. Then in 2021, Vogl and Narain conceived the idea of a kind of in-house help desk within the World Bank. This became known as the BELA initiative, which Vogl helped lead. 

The BELA initiative sought to do something new: integrate natural capital and ecosystem service approaches, which quantify and map nature’s benefits to people, into the Bank’s actual operations – from inception to planning to implementation. Their work in 11 countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, influenced nearly a billion dollars in development finance over two years. 

Recently published case studies from the BELA initiative show how these approaches worked in multiple countries across government sectors such as the environment ministry, agriculture, energy, water, transportation, disaster risk management, and finance, to increase resilience to climate change while also boosting economic and community well-being. The BELA team helped the Bank make more effective investments in landscape restoration and nature-based solutions, which use conservation or restoration of high-priority natural areas to retain or restore the services nature provides to people. Examples of these services include water purification, carbon storage, flood protection, water for agriculture and energy production, and more. 

“The countries BELA worked in are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts such as increased flooding, heat, landslides, and so on. Nature-based solutions like landscape restoration can be a cost-effective way to improve reliable access to infrastructure for clean water, electricity, sanitation, transportation, and housing. We helped find priority areas where people, livelihoods, and infrastructure are at high risk, and where there was also a high potential for nature-based solutions to improve the situation,” said Narain.

The BELA initiative is also sharing lessons from its work through the People, Planet, Prosperity project, which the Natural Capital Project co-leads with the Inter-American Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank. 

Improving rural livelihoods as part of forest protection

BELA first started working in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the local level in the fall of 2021. The World Bank’s senior climate finance specialist, Pierre Guigon, asked for BELA’s support in demonstrating how an ecosystem approach to land management could help with some of the country’s challenges, and where restoration or conservation might make the most sense. 

Working with Guigon, Vogl and the BELA team helped the Democratic Republic of Congo’s government determine priority areas for restoration or conservation through a rapid natural capital assessment of hotspots, meaning places where the greatest number of people are relying on the largest range of ecosystem services. In June 2023, the nation’s government and the World Bank approved a $300 million project, the Forest and Savanna Restoration Investment Program, which aims to improve benefits from forested landscapes for 1.2 million people. 

“This project has two main goals,” said Guigon. “To make people’s lives better, and prevent further destruction of the forest. The BELA work is helping us do both.” To do this, the new project will work on improving rural livelihoods and supply chains for sustainable production of forest products, as well as access to markets for farmers, and involve communities in forest protection in key areas. The project will also support clean cooking solutions for 2.5 million people to hasten the country’s transition away from wood energy, with benefits for human and forest health.

A new kind of investment

“The DRC needs not just more but different investment,” said Vogl. “Whenever transportation, agriculture, or energy people are thinking about improving infrastructure, they shouldn’t just be thinking about how to do that and minimize environmental impacts – they should be thinking, ‘How can we do this and improve ecosystem services at the same time?’ There is a funding gap for infrastructure development globally, but protecting and managing the environment is not just a cost on top of that – it can actually be built into it.”

The BELA initiative was funded by the PROGREEN Global Partnership for Sustainable and Resilient Landscapes, a World Bank Multi-Donor Trust Fund, and core World Bank funding. The Natural Capital Project is based out of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and its Woods Institute for the Environment, and the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences.

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