6 Aug 2020

How your decisions can impact tropical forest landscapes

Our new animation, launched at the Global Landscapes Forum, turns to an unlikely inspiration to help explain landscape conservation and our innovative work to support communities in tropical forests: videogames.

Strategy videogames involve making decisions and often exploiting natural resources. Screenshot: BirdLife International / The Like Minded
Strategy videogames involve making decisions and often exploiting natural resources. Screenshot: BirdLife / The Like Minded
By Cressida Stevens

Does the image above look familiar? If so, there’s a good chance that you – or someone you know – have played a turn-based strategy game. In this genre of videogame, the rules and objectives differ from title to title, but generally revolve around the player attempting to defeat their opponent – either human or computer-controlled – by making decisions on their turn. Capture that farm, or attack the opposing army? Invest in resources, or build a tank? Each decision you make has far-reaching consequences that, to the novice player, will only reveal themselves several turns down the line, at which point it might be too late. That’s what makes the expert players expert – recognising the gravity of each decision, and the effect it will have later on.

The same principle is true, it turns out, of landscape conservation. At a ground-breaking digital conference this summer, BirdLife's Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator used an animation, to highlight these parallels, and what they mean, to key stakeholders working in the sector.

What's your next move? Screenshot: BirdLife / The Like Minded

For the uninitiated, our Accelerator is a unique initiative to help BirdLife Partners continue their vital work with communities in some of the world’s most species-rich, tropical forests. Rather than pursuing grants on a project-by-project basis (on which most of our forest conservation successes to date have depended), it seeks long-term and reliable funding from passionate investors.

In any ordinary year, the Accelerator would have hosted a ‘pitch’ event in London, where the Landscape Leaders of the initiative’s project sites present the achievements and future aims of their work on the ground. However, with this unable to go ahead, the team were delighted when they secured an alternative opportunity: hosting a session, via Zoom, at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF).

Almost 5,000 people from 185 different countries joined this conference to listen to top experts present innovative ideas and lead discussions on how to sustainably feed the ever-increasing global population.

On the first day of the conference, the Accelerator hosted a session on the forest-positive future of food and livelihoods. The session kicked off with the aforementioned ‘strategy’ animation, which walked viewers through a forest landscape to explain the purpose of the Accelerator:

It shows landscapes are not just made of trees, wildlife and local communities - they are formed by the decisions people make. Just as one decision can have untold consequences four or five turns down the line in a strategy game, the animation shows how a single, typical decision can affect many aspects of the landscape, including its wildlife, water supply, soil condition, farmers’ incomes and more.

“Well-managed landscapes meet the needs of the present, without compromising the future”

Foundations laid, landscape leaders in Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia and Cambodia took to the screen to showcase their landscape initiatives. The online platform gave us a unique opportunity to step into a tropical forest and hear from the very people fighting deforestation on their doorstep, and witness the deep-rooted issues that forest loss creates.

“I see this forest landscape like islands, surrounded by a sea of cattle ranches and sugar cane”, said Alice Reisfeld, Project Manager at SAVE Brasil (BirdLife Partner). South America’s Atlantic Forest hosts biodiversity thought to exceed even that of the Amazon, but this fragmentation is a huge threat to that status. Alice referred to the plight of the Alagoas Antwren Myrmotherula snowi. “This tiny bird has a population of less than 30 individuals remaining in the world. Two of its cousins became extinct in this region very recently – I don’t want to see that happen again.”

It’s not only wildlife that can’t afford to lose the Atlantic Forest; it is responsible for the water supply of millions of people and its resources form the basis of many local communities’ income. This means that poor planning and decision-making can have serious knock-on effects. Without collaboration between the different players in a landscape, isolated projects tend to fail. For example, it is difficult to reap the rewards of a shade-grown cocoa, without addressing the oil palm company who is causing deforestation down the road, and disturbing local weather conditions. It is difficult to encourage better cattle ranching practices if the local bank continues giving loans for intense production methods. To solve these deep-rooted issues, the Accelerator promotes a ‘landscape approach’ that calls for conscious, inclusive planning and strong governance to join up initiatives. Well-managed landscapes meet the needs of the present without compromising the future.

Alice Reisfeld (SAVE Brasil) presenting her landscape project at the GLF


But strategy game players know that it is not enough to rely on a single technique – you have to adapt your gameplan to your circumstances.

Evelyn Brítez is the Coordinator of the Yerba Mate Initiative for Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife Partner), a programme seeking to protect forests by harnessing the nation’s appetite for yerba mate tea. She emphasised why forest conservation is not just a case of marking off protected areas.

Brítez works in San Rafael, also in the Atlantic Forest, a reserve which was created in 1992 but to this day remains a park only on paper, lacking the proper legal protection and government support. This renders the site subject to logging, illegal poaching and clearance for crops. “In order to build better strategies for people, their livelihoods and their food systems, we need to meet their needs while protecting forests, biodiversity and water resources”, says Brítez. Guyra Paraguay supports communities in growing shade-grown, organic and fair trade yerba mate, and exporting it to higher-value markets.

From tea to cocoa, rice to candlenut, BirdLife Partners are developing the sales of forest-positive commodities and carbon schemes – and the Accelerator is giving this work the boost it needs to become a long-term solution.

Bou Vorsak, BirdLife Cambodia Programme Manager, explained how farmers in the Ibis Rice scheme have welcomed the opportunity to receive a premium price for their rice, rewarding their efforts to grow organically and without encroaching on the forest.

Our landscape leaders are driven by the potential for long-term, systemic change for nature and people, not just a quick win or greenwash for companies. “Investing in Mbeliling [an Accelerator landscape in Indonesia] is not just giving you an economic return on investment. It is having social, ecological and governance impacts which are needed by the people helping to protect it”, noted Adi Widyanto, Head of Conservation and Development at Burung Indonesia.

Everyday decisions have real-life consequences on landscapes. Screenshot: BirdLife / The Like Minded

Outside of the conference, the Accelerator cohort have adapted to the new digital reality. They are staying connected through webinars and online discussions, so even if circumstances mean they can’t be in the forest, they can continue to advance their protection. Yet our landscape leaders are not the only ones who can steer towards a more secure future for forests. As Katie Sims, BirdLife’s Forest Programme Officer, and narrator for the animation, remarks:

“The future of managed landscapes are linked to every supermarket purchase, every politician we elect, every business we invest in.”

We can all have an impact through the decisions we make. And with that, it’s your turn. What’s your next move?

Accelerator Q&A

Throughout BirdLife’s session at the Global Landscapes Forum, attendees could submit questions to the speakers which were then answered live at the end of the session. Here’s how our experts responded to some of the most challenging questions:


How do you make sure the money reaches the local people?

There’s an important difference between traditional and impact investors that local communities should be aware of. Where traditional investors often hold most of the negotiating power, investors looking for impact in sustainable land use are often more motivated to get the deal done than the communities. Therefore, it is key that communities are aware of the power they hold and are not unduly pressured, aided by good access to legal and negotiation support from qualified personnel. Having a well-managed governance structure involving local communities –  perhaps through existing frameworks such as community forestry groups or farmer cooperatives – helps ensure the finance reaches the right people and places.

Jim Stephenson, Director of Terranomics Limited which seeks economic solutions to environmental problems


How can forest-friendly farming really work when intensive agriculture seems more economical?

There are actually some expenses that can be saved using forest positive practices. Firstly, agroforestry tends to become a complex ecosystem, able to replenish nutrients by itself. This makes it easier to farm organically, with no need for costly chemicals. It also provides multiple products (unlike monocultures), meaning there’s a more stable cash flow throughout the year as farmers are not reliant on one product with one harvest period. We carefully assess which crops are not only forest friendly, but also ‘pocket friendly’ so that any sustainable livelihood initiative also makes good business for farmers. There are challenges with more government subsidies or support going to unsustainable practices. Although this can make logistical costs higher, the key is in the power of many. For example, by accumulating the candlenut harvests from enough farmers, we can overcome the cost of transport together and access better markets. Therefore the viability of the initiative increases with the number of participating farmers. Forest-positive farming can be a game changer.

Adi Widyanto, Head of Conservation and Development at Burung Indonesia


What are the trade-offs to consider when investing in biodiversity conservation?

It is a common misconception that there’s always a trade-off between economic development and biodiversity conservation, leading us to think financing biodiversity is a cost rather than an investment. Experiences in Agriculture, Forestry and Tourism have demonstrated sustainable production can lead to profits. Additional de-risking finance mechanisms are needed to scale up existing sustainable projects that are currently too small or too risky to be considered as a sound investment. Currently, governments spend approximately USD 500 billion a year on activities potentially harmful to biodiversity. That is five to six times more than all spending on biodiversity. Identifying and redirecting these harmful subsidies will be critical to reaching our global targets and will provide the right incentives to private and finance sectors to invest in biodiversity.

Marco Arlaud, Programme Officer for the UNDP Biodiversity Finance Initiative

The video also shows the livelihood benefits of connecting and protecting forests. Here a former-hunter turned forest ranger is shown. Screenshot: BirdLife / The Like Minded


The Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator is a Trillion Trees initiative led by the BirdLife Forests Programme, supported by the Hempel Foundation and Google.org

One trillion trees re-grown, saved from loss, and better protected around the world by 2050. Together, we can make it happen.
BirdLife works with WCS and WWF as part of Trillion Trees. Go to www.trilliontrees.org to find out more.