The Forest First Approach

Natural, intact forests and other ecosystems are indispensable for human health, livelihoods, and food security worldwide, and yet are still being lost and degraded, especially in the tropics. Agricultural expansion is the primary driver of tropical deforestation and forest degradation. A significant portion of this expansion is due to the ever-increasing demand for internationally traded agricultural commodities, such as palm oil, soy, beef, rubber, coffee, and cacao.

Efforts to halt agriculture-driven deforestation have resulted in several high-profile public and private sector commitments, such as the New York Declaration on Forests or the Amsterdam Declarations, as well as a growing number of company commitments to remove deforestation from supply chains. To support the implementation and impact of these efforts, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has developed a new ‘risk-based’ framing for action on deforestation, that prioritizes efforts towards the farm and forests frontier.

WCS’s Forest First Approach’ is centered on the principle that prioritizing efforts towards forest frontiers has the potential to aggressively address current deforestation whilst also providing pre-emptive protection against the future conversion of adjacent intact or primary forests. This framing provides the scientific rationale and the business case for the public and private sector to proactively triage and target emerging deforestation risks before they are heavily embedded within supply chains, and provides a lens through which emerging deforestation frontiers can be identified.

The key guiding principles of a ‘Forest First Approach’ are:

1. Prioritize actions to the forest frontier, where ‘embedded risk’ of deforestation in commodity production is highest and intersects with at-risk primary and intact forests

This has key implications for the strategies of importing countries and companies seeking to address their deforestation risks. It provides an opportunity to ensure measures support the protection of standing forests and in doing so reduce future risk while maximizing contributions to climate and biodiversity goals.

2. Support smallholder farmers and local communities at the forest frontier

Securing a living wage for farmers at the forest frontier is a key building block to preventing future forest conversion, supporting farmers that underpin commodity sectors, and securing long-term sustainable supply. The horizon of corporate responsibility must shift to identify and foster stronger relationships with smallholder producers at the forest frontier, even in areas outside of current supply sheds.

3. Catalyze collective action, and collective responsibility, at the forest frontier

Collaborative and pre-competitive action can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of action at the forest frontier. This can result in cost savings by companies seeking to improve the sustainability of their supply chains. Cooperation with communities, local government and NGOs, supported by donor governments and philanthropy at the forest frontier can result in livelihood, development, climate and biodiversity conservation impacts. Development assistance and philanthropy, particularly the use of sustainable and blended finance, has a critical role to play in de-risking private sector engagement and financial investment in these areas.

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The Forest First Approach can increase support for smallholder farmers; reduce supply chain deforestation risk and provide pre-emptive protection against the future conversion of adjacent intact or primary forests; and in doing so, achieve disproportionate benefits for mitigating climate change and protecting biodiversity. These inherent benefits are likely to represent significant medium and long-term cost savings to the public and private sector and should be explored as a matter of priority.

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