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September 18, 2013

Conservationists Partner with Locals to Save African Forests

by Kim Lewis

Wildlife Works, an international development and management company that applies innovative market-based solutions to help preserve biodiversity, has been helping local landowners in the developing world benefit from forests and other assets. Through an initiative originated by the United Nations, called REDD+, an acronym for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, Wildlife Works is working to protect thousands of acres of forests in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The company’s founder and, CEO, Mike Korchinsky, explained his organization’s efforts to counter the damaging effects of climate change.

“When tropical forests are destroyed, they release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute significantly to climate change, and forestry contributed over 15-per cent of the annual emissions. So, more than transportation, more than all of the cars, trains, and planes in the world, emissions from people around the world destroy forests.  [Also], when you destroy forests, you destroy habitat for endangered species and other biodiversity, and you threaten the livelihoods of forest communities.  So, protecting forests has a triple benefit, climate, people and biodiversity.”

The project in Kenya covers over 500,000 acres of highly threatened forest which includes the entire wildlife migration corridor between Kenya’s Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks. It is Wildlife Works oldest and largest project to date.

“It’s called the Kasigau Corridor project, and we have a very talented team of young Kenyans there that are working with the local community, which is about 120,000 people. They’re working with them to preserve that natural forest between those two national parks, and in doing so, to generate financial benefits to the community from protecting that natural capital,” explained Korchinsky.

He said the benefits of the projects can be felt globally.  For example, Korchinsky explained that garments produced at what he described as an eco-friendly factory are sold around the world; the factory uses material from plantations that are created to preserve forests; and revenues from the sale of the garments or from labor used to harvest the trees are used to finance local schools.

Korchinsky said one of the biggest challenges facing biodiversity are the high levels of gases emitted from human activity, especially in the industry and energy sectors.  Those emissions are behind elevated temperatures, flooding, intense storms and increased drought. 

“A large chunk of [the emissions] are coming from the destruction of forests. And, if we can’t get a handle on protecting forests, we’re not going to be able to stabilize our effect on climate. So there are many people out there [and international organizations], starting with the United Nations and the World Bank, many corporations, and many, many NGO’s that are very concerned with this issue, and are willing to try and finance the reduction of these emissions.  And the area that we work in is going to those sources to provide financing to pay communities to protect threatened forests,” explained Korchinsky.

This financial relationship with the community is called direct carbon financing. It offers an attractive alternative solution to the destruction of forests by locals out of economic necessity. In return, they are paid a fee for every ton of emissions they avoid.

Most of the teams working on the projects are staffed with members of the community.

“These jobs are jobs for the local community-- first and foremost, 400 jobs in the local communities. Their carbon project has built more than 18 schools in the community, and then bursary -- the 1,600 children who would not have been able to go through high school and university – were it not for from the benefits of the communities’ carbon projects,” he said.

Wildlife Works has another big project taking place in Africa through the REDD+ initiative, and it is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The forest area where they are working has a larger land base of 750,000 acres and is a more tropical, wet forest.

“That forest is home to the Bonoba, which are the slender chimpanzee, the highly endangered great ape.  Protecting the forest is protecting one of the few places on earth that that chimpanzee lives.  So it’s a benefit to conservation and a benefit to the local community,” said Korchinsky.

He said the REDD+ projects are designed to stay in place for a minimum of thirty years, and conservationists assigned to them are committed to working side by side with local communities, ensuring the projects pass all international audits, and that they do what they say they will do -- reduce emissions.  It is a long term commitment, he said, but with lasting benefits.