Conservation news

France’s tropical forest conservation efforts: an interview with AFD’s Gilles Kleitz

A canoe on the Maroni river, which forms the border between French Guiana and Suriname. Photo © Didier Gentilhomme.

A canoe on the Maroni river, which forms the border between French Guiana and Suriname. Photo © Didier Gentilhomme.

  • Since hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015 which resulted in the Paris Climate Agreement, France has become a leading proponent for tropical forest conservation. This effort has included establishing a National Strategy to Combat Imported Deforestation (SNDI) to effectively apply a zero deforestation policy to commodities produced at the expense of forests in the tropics.
  • One of the key institutions charged with implementing the SNDI abroad is the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), France’s overseas development agency. AFD programs in tropical forests have not always been without controversy—NGOs have alleged that AFD has supported companies which contribute to deforestation—but AFD says it has incorporated this criticism as well as findings from research institutions into safeguards it now applies to the projects it finances.
  • Accordingly, AFD’s emphasis around tropical forests in recent years has shifted toward conservation and “sustainable forest management”, which includes establishing forest management plans to reduce the impact of logging operations in places like the Congo Basin.
  • To provide some context on AFD’s current approaches and priorities, Mongabay spoke with Gilles Kleitz, head of Agriculture, Water and Biodiversity at the French Development Agency.

Since hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015 which resulted in the Paris Climate Agreement, France has become a leading proponent for tropical forest conservation. This effort has included establishing a National Strategy to Combat Imported Deforestation (SNDI) to effectively apply a zero deforestation policy to commodities produced at the expense of forests in the tropics.

One of the key institutions charged with implementing the SNDI abroad is the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), France’s overseas development agency. Since last year, AFD has been putting tens of millions of euros annually toward projects that contribute to conservation and restoration of tropical forests, while also supporting the groundwork for the “zero deforestation” public purchasing policy which is set to take effect in 2022. AFD has also been working to support France’s biodiversity conservation goals.

Deforestation in French Guiana. Photo © Didier Gentilhomme

AFD has a long history of operating in tropical forests, especially in its former colonies and overseas territories. These programs have not always been without controversy—NGOs have alleged that AFD has supported industrial logging companies which contribute to deforestation—but AFD says it has incorporated this criticism as well as findings from research institutions into safeguards it now applies to the projects it finances. Accordingly, AFD’s emphasis around tropical forests in recent years has shifted toward conservation and “sustainable forest management”, which includes establishing forest management plans to reduce the impact of logging operations in places like the Congo Basin, where deforestation is now rising at the fastest rate of any major tropical forest region. AFD is also investing in alternative livelihood programs that aim to expand low carbon development opportunities for local communities.

To provide some context on AFD’s current approaches and priorities, Mongabay spoke with Gilles Kleitz, head of Agriculture, Water and Biodiversity at the French Development Agency. Kleitz comes from a conservation background. He began his career in 1988 in Africa, where he worked for more than a decade on wildlife and ecosystem conservation. Kleitz joined AFD as its Senior Biodiversity Programme Manager in 2009, where he worked for five years until becoming the director of the Parc Amazonien de Guyane, a 3.4-million-hectare national park covering the southern half of French Guiana, France’s forested overseas department in South America. He returned to AFD in September 2018.

Kleitz spoke to Mongabay in December 2020.

AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. GILLES KLEITZ

Mongabay: France has been increasingly outspoken about the need to address climate change and biodiversity loss. Why are these issues priorities for the French government?

Kleitz: France is committed to contribute to a sustainable future for all and for our planet. Social inclusion and an equitable economy for the benefit of human well-being for all is inseparable from urgently steering global and local development within planetary limits, both in terms of biosphere and climate.

Mongabay: What are AFD’s current priorities related to climate and biodiversity?

Kleitz: We are 100% aligned with the Paris Agreement in that all our activities contribute to low carbon trajectories. 50% of our finance (roughly €5 billion) produces climate positive outcomes (mitigation and/or adaptation) and 30% of our climate finance should be biodiversity positive by 2025 (up from 20% in 2020). Our biodiversity finance is presently €0.5 billion and we have committed to reach €1Bn by 2025.

Savanna and forest mosaic in the Congo Basin, including recently burned areas. Photo © Microsoft Zoom Earth.

Mongabay: In 2018 France rolled out the National Strategy to Combat Imported Deforestation (SNDI). What is AFD’s role in supporting or implementing the SNDI?

Kleitz: AFD supports producer countries, local authorities and private actors in low-and middle-income countries as well as emerged economies to set up zero deforestation territories, value chains and commodity production, especially with small-scale farmers.

We bring adapted finance and technical assistance; we advocate as well for including deforestation activities in the exclusion list of all public development banks.

Brazilian rainforest. Photo © Antoine Grimaud.

We contribute to France’s position within the European Union to strengthen Social and Environmental standards for imports, as well as regulations and laws, especially for key products linked to deforestation.

Mongabay: How is SNDI progressing so far? Have there been any big or obvious successes so far, despite the program being underway for only a couple years?

Kleitz: In the way of the two Amsterdam declarations, French national strategy to combat imported deforestation (SNDI) is the first published EU-member state strategy aiming to address tropical deforestation driven by national demand by 2030. SNDI is fully aligned with the five priorities of the European strategy embedded in the communication from 23 July 2019 on stepping up EU action to protect and restore the world’s forests.

It has been shaped through a lively dialogue platform, composed by a multi-stakeholders committee mobilizing campaigning and environmental NGOs, major French retails groups, traders in agricultural commodities, certification schemes, scientific community, experts and French authorities.

Forest cleared to make way for palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

As mentioned above, AFD is involved in SNDI implementation in three main ways:

Our first contribution is an annual commitment of €60 million over the next five years directed to projects combating deforestation, promoting ecological restoration of degraded forest ecosystems and improving sustainable forest management. We will start reporting to the SNDI monitoring committee next year, and we are confident to achieve this goal (in 2018 and 2019, AFD has allocated €81.5 million to similar projects).

Our second main responsibility is to support low-emission/resilient development trajectories of producers countries through a cooperation dialogue between governments, Civil Society Organizations and corporations. This includes specifically supporting zero-deforestation value chains and territories.

Our third role is to initiate scientific research into the root causes and mechanisms of deforestation and forest degradation. On this particular aspect, together with the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, the French Ministry for Ecological Transition and the French Ministry of Agriculture and Food, AFD set up a Scientific and Technical Committee on Forests (Comité scientifique et technique forêt), which will make available those concerned with forest-related issues: scientific methods, knowledge and tools. The first remarkable product of the Scientific and Technical Committee on Forests is a technical proposal, drafted by a consortium of environmental NGOs, to stop soy imports coming from conversion of natural ecosystems of South America. The final study will be published soon (the draft study is available here). The Committee is currently working on operational definitions of deforestation and on compliance of existing certification schemes with zero-deforestation provisions.

Mongabay: In the United States, public awareness of the importance of tropical forests is low. Is the public very engaged around tropical forest issues in France?

Kleitz: France has an important network of campaigning and environmental NGOs that have an agenda to awareness on tropical timber. AFD has been the target of different campaigns, which it learned from.

We all remember the very symbolic action from Greenpeace in 2015, where 4 tons of imported tropical timber suspected of being illegally harvested were dropped at the front door of a French ministry.

Greenpeace activists deliver a tropical timber log to the front door of the Ministry of Ecology in France. Activists, wearing uniforms of “Brigade de Vérification de Bois” (BVB) hold banners reading “Illegal timber: the government doesn’t care” and “Illegal timber: two years of inaction.” Photo © Pierre Baelen / Greenpeace.

From a consumer point of view, recent opinion polling showed that French people think that more than half of French final consumers would be keen to pay a premium for products coming from responsible or ethical sources, but in the meantime, 60% of them admit that the main driver of deforestation remains economic.

Mongabay: From the perspective of a U.S. citizen, the U.S. government has not made a lot of progress in the climate change and biodiversity space over the past four years. Historically, does AFD collaborate much with USAID and other U.S. agencies? And if so, do you expect the Biden administration to be more engaged on climate and forest conservation?

Kleitz: Because of the different modalities and focus of USAID, AFD has little cooperation with USAID; we have many more activities (and mostly ground-based, practical projects) with North American-based philanthropies and conservation organizations such as TNC, CI, and WCS, who are long-standing partners of AFD.

Rainforest in Brazil. Photo © Antoine Grimaud

In the forest, biodiversity and conservation sectors, we believe that there would be many positive opportunities for U.S. agencies to be much more present outside of the USA and contribute to available expertise on the ground, especially in tropical Africa, the Amazon or South East Asia. Technical and management expertise as well as evaluation and financial models of conservation and sustainable use in these fields can be an important contribution to the global conservation agenda and the U.S. public and private sectors could provide experts to help in this context. We expect the Biden administration to do that pro-actively. But the most positive sign would certainly be that the U.S. finally joins the UN convention on biological diversity ahead of the COP15 in 2021 and its up-coming global biodiversity framework with its 2030 and 2050 objectives.

Mongabay: Tropical Africa has been a priority region for AFD. With deforestation now rising in the region faster than anywhere else, how is AFD’s approach in the region changing?

Kleitz: AFD projects are 100% aligned with Paris agreement in all geographies where we work, including Africa and the Congo Basin. AFD funding allocation to forest conservation and sustainable management is the result of a dialogue with our partners. This dialogue, combined with tremendous contextual evolutions, helped transform our approach on tropical forests.

Since the 1990s, AFD has contributed to shaping and implementing policies on tropical forest management by providing technical and financial support. It started with publishing forest management planning models and then setting up normative and legislative frameworks. These were followed by adapting responsible certification standards (FSC then PEFC) to the Central African context.

We are now in a critical, but timely period, where national forest policies meet the requirements of the 2015 Paris Agreement (NDC); high-level commitments on low-emission development strategies, through Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), are taken; independent certification schemes are fully operational; and the scientific community is revealing core tropical forests areas with the highest conservation values index and biggest role in climate change mitigation to be set-aside.

A canoe on the Maroni river, which forms the border between French Guiana and Suriname. Photo © Didier Gentilhomme.

AFD is supporting partners countries, scientific research centers (Cirad, Cifor), environmental NGOs, civil society, and communities to frame and implement these commitments at the high-level.

Considering this changing context, we are giving a greater weight in Central African countries to support the development of resilient and diverse local agriculture and agroforestry projects managed by local communities, of more balanced and effective benefit-shared mechanisms, and of biodiversity conservation actions. Most of these operations are co-funded by CAFI.

Mongabay: There have been allegations that AFD has supported French companies suspected of contributing to deforestation in the Congo Basin. What safeguards does AFD have for the projects it finances?

Kleitz: From a global perspective, our environmental and social risk management policies for funded operations (here) are aligned with the World Bank’s ten Environmental and Social Standards (ESS).

Our Environmental and Social experts accompany our team task leaders, before disbursements, to fix a Social and Environmental Engagement Plan, which sets and contextualizes socio-environmental safeguards for each project.

To come back to these allegations, that we have taken very seriously, we asked independent and well-known scientists to help us to assess potential deleterious impacts of our projects.

In a 2016 article published in Land Use Policy, Karsenty et al. showed that in Republic of Congo “a forest concession with a forest management plan suffered half as much gross deforestation, with production kept constant, than a concession without forest management plan”.

Then, in an article published in Ecological Economics in 2020, Tritsch et al. concluded that in Central Africa region “between 2000 and 2010, deforestation was 74% lower in concessions with a forest management plan compared to others”.

Rainforest timber on a barge in Gabon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

AFD has been one of the first development agency to fund scientists and forestry experts to develop, in the early 2000s, the first forest management plans (FMP) and to support its generalization and, most importantly, its real implementation in all forest concessions. We did not fully reach this goal, for sure, but contributed to some extent to better forest management and governance in key landscapes.

We are now working with the Scientific and Technical Committee on forests at the central level in our projects in the field to improve the environmental and social sustainability of the FMP model, and will support its adaptation for community forests and artisanal sector. We are also now focusing more on biodiversity, forest ecological corridors maintenance, and agroecology projects, which could be more beneficial to forest-dwelling people.

Small-holder deforestation in French Guiana. Photo © Didier Gentilhomme.

Mongabay: Many are arguing that while COVID has brought incredible hardship around the world, it may ultimately offer an opportunity to shift away from destructive business-as-usual approaches. How has COVID affected AFD’s strategy?

Kleitz: We have disbursed €1.3 billion in social and emergency funding under a “Health in Common” emergency program in the first 8 months of 2020. We are moving towards even stronger alignment within SDGs, as seen with the entire Public Development Bank Summit “Finance in Common” in November 2020, and are looking at the most efficient ways to incorporate this general orientation in our dialogue with partners in the global south and steer our portfolio activities toward a more strictly green and inclusive recovery from COVID-19 crisis.

Mongabay: President Macron has been outspoken about deforestation to the extent that last year he drew the ire of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. What is AFD’s current emphasis in the Amazon?

Kleitz: We are a small actor financially in the Amazon: our granting and lending activities focus on zero deforestation territories, forest protection, and support to other place-based protection approaches; helping indigenous communities strengthen their capacities; and investing in sustainable infrastructure for all (water sanitation notably). Within the French objectives in the region, our aim at AFD is to support local and national actors engaged in positive, local, green and inclusive partnership territorial dynamics that combine sustainable development and the preservation of local livelihoods and the forest.

Rainforest tree in French Guiana. Photo © Didier Gentilhomme.

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