Climbing mountains and breaking down doors

14th March 2024

Six months into my Turner Fellowship and the shape of the mountain range I am trying to climb is becoming clearer, even if I am still only in the foothills. My goal is to understand and recount the stories of what has worked in tropical forest protection in the last thirty years, and to try to work out why they were successful, looking through the lenses of five countries – two forest giants, Indonesia, and Brazil, and three highly biodiverse and distinct minnows – Ecuador, Gabon and Liberia. So far, I have talked to around forty people, from NGOs and indigenous organisations, academia and research institutions, using formal interviews and informal chats. Here are some of the insights I have valued so far:

Individuals can change the course of forest history

I’m no fan of the ‘great man’ theory of history but I do keep coming across women and men whose courage and perseverance have made a big difference. Take the four women founders of Accion Ecologica, a small environmental justice collective based in Ecuador, who have forged a multi-decade alliance with indigenous organisations to secure their territorial rights in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and also helped secure rights for nature in the country’s constitution. I first met them thirty-five years ago and they are still going strong. Last year the Yasunido movement they created won a national referendum to protect the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve from oil exploration. As a result of their collective efforts over ten million hectares of some of the most biodiverse forest on earth remains standing in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and repeated attempts to expand the oil industry across the region have been contained.  Or consider the action of Lars Lovold, the humble founder of the Rainforest Foundation of Norway, who I interviewed in snowy Oslo last month. In 2007 he and a colleague from Friends of the Earth convinced their parliament and their Prime Minister to start the Norwegian Initiative on Climate and Forests (NICFI). It has contributed over a third of a billion dollars to tropical forest protection in its first fifteen years and is the largest bilateral fund for forests in the world.

There are countries whose forest protection successes appear to confirm distinct preferences across the environment sector

If Ecuador demonstrates the power of justice-based movements to constrain the State’s extractive activity in tropical forests, then Brazil is a powerful example for those who promote political leadership as the most effective factor in forest protection. As one interviewee noted when Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva – a factory worker – won the Brazil presidential election of 2002, it was a complete break with history. It was ‘like the UK electing Arthur Scargill* as prime minister’. Lula was an unlikely forest champion but had a keen eye on international opinion and he empowered his environment minister Marina Silva who had forged her commitment to forest protection working alongside Chico Mendes, the rubber-tapper and rural union leader assassinated in 1988 due to his environmental activism. She created a sophisticated cross-government plan which reduced deforestation by over eighty per cent in eight years, the fastest and deepest drop any country has achieved.

Indonesia has benefited from political leadership on forests from President Jokowi, demonstrated in his plan to address the underlying causes behind the disastrous forest and peat fires of 2015. Many observers however would highlight the powerful role of international pressure on palm deforestation in the years running up to his presidency. Those who believe that constraining and channelling market actors is the fastest route to change can point to the critical role of international campaigns from Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and Mighty Earth in helping break the link between palm oil and deforestation in the last ten years. Still others are focused on creating financial incentives for carbon and ecosystem services. The evidence of scale effects here looks weaker, although it seems that the Norwegian ‘Results-Based Payments’ approach has attracted the attention and focus of many forest-rich governments, including that of Brazil and Indonesia.

Even disappointing summits can stimulate national impacts that reverberate down the ages

A starting point for my investigation is the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, the birthplace of the climate and biodiversity conventions, but also the meeting where hopes for a dedicated forest convention died. Reading the non-binding forest declaration from Rio is a depressing experience. It has therefore been comforting to stumble across examples that show that the act of holding the Summit made a big difference to forests in Brazil at least. President Collor needed to look good in the run-up to the Summit and announced the establishment of the Yanomami and the Kayapo indigenous reserves in 1991, covering 14.5 million hectares of the Amazon. Additionally, his predecessor requested that Brazil have its own forest monitoring system in time for the Summit rather than be subject to eye-watering deforestation estimates from international agencies. The Brazilian Space Agency (INPE) responded and went on to develop the most sophisticated national forest monitoring systems in the world. It was their PRODES and DETER systems which allowed successive governments to target their deforestation efforts, enforce national forest law, and win the trust and support of international donors. It’s an argument for holding a big climate or biodiversity summit in the Democratic Republic of Congo soon.

Action breeds hope, and hope is action

I try to end my discussions with interviewees by asking where they derive their motivation from, particularly if they have reflected on the setbacks they have witnessed. One long-time Ecuadorian forest activist responded ‘Action, that has been our reason for living, for the organization, so we do not know how to do anything other than be in the struggle, that is our function, our role’. Over two thousand miles away in Sao Paulo an eminent Brazilian scientist had a similar response ‘I try not to be optimistic about things. I try to say where can I act and what is the contribution that I can make’. It chimes with the powerful imagery conjured up by Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark ‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with, in an emergency’. I feel very lucky to be talking to the many people across the CCI community trying to break down those doors.

*Arthur Scargill is a British trade unionist who was President of the National Union of Mineworkers from 1982 to 2002 and is best known for leading the UK miners’ strike.


Matthew Spencer is the 2023 Turner Fellow at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Global Director Landscapes at IDH 

Edited 18th May.